January 30, 2012

Teacher meetings are deflating

I've always said that faculty meetings are the place where good ideas go to die. Sounds cynical, I realize, but think about it the next time you attend one. Bring up something innovative and see how quickly it's shot down by a principal.

After a couple of grade-level meetings, led by teachers, I realized that these gatherings are just as deflating as the faculty meetings conducted by principals.

It's one complaint after another -- most of them about the same things, students not performing or high stakes testing.

In addition to eliminating the test, I'm in favor of eradicating all meetings.

January 28, 2012

Do we encourage our students to cheat?

I've seen more cheating this school year than I have in the last few years combined. It seems that every other day I find a handful of students copying a peer's homework or a worksheet that is supposed to be some sort of study guide for a test.

When I inquire about this "borrowing" of other student's work, I'm usually given a strange excuse like, "Oh Mrs. so-and-so doesn't mind; it's just for review." I don't even want to know if this is true, as that would lead to an entirely different topic.

As I stroll around my study hall, I sometimes ask students about the homework or other activities they're working on, curious about what their traditional teachers are assigning. I may ask a student, "What's the purpose of this assignment?" Occasionally, I get a reasonable answer; others, I get a shrug and an, "I don't know."

If the activity is so ill-conceived that the student has no idea of its value, what incentive does he have to complete it?

Don't bad activities and homework encourage students to cheat?

January 27, 2012

Traditionalists still struggle with discipline problems

Here is a paraphrased conversation I walked in on, between two long-time teachers, struggling with discipline problems in the classroom:
Teacher A: "Every time there is noise in the hallway, we need to gather the students, leave the building and walk back in again in silence."
Teacher B: "Back in my day, we used to take one kid and put him in front of the others and. . . ." (You can complete the sentence with whatever horrible, demeaning act that comes to mind.)
Teacher A: "We can't do anything too extreme now, but I'm telling you, if you make them do something over and over, until they say, 'Enough already,' things will change."
Teacher B: "I just don't know. . ."
Normally, I'll jump in on these debates; in fact, both of these valued colleagues have  heard my opinion on using results-only learning strategies to solve the behavior problems that continue to plague them. This time, though, I said nothing.

I only pondered the conversation, wondering how long the traditionalists will continue to struggle.

January 26, 2012

Vote on #resultsonly chat topic

Our next #resultsonly chat on Twitter takes place Wednesday February 1 at 7 PM EST. What would you like to discuss. Vote now.

January 25, 2012

Why do educators out-think the test?

It's no secret that I detest the test. High stakes testing undermines teaching and learning in every way. In fact, I believe teachers should be speaking out against standardized tests and do everything possible to eliminate them.

While the test is here, though, we should handle it properly. We need to stop out-thinking it.

It seems that each year in my school district, a new test-preparation system or computer program comes along to help our students improve their scores. Ironically, the scores continue to decline. Why is it so hard for decision-makers to realize that we have to stop teaching to the test.

While my colleagues bore students into submission with practice test material and computerized reading programs, my students read. They read all year. They read books of their choosing, write about their stories and share their reading with peers.

And, in the end, they outperform their peers in traditional classes.

So, why do we continue to out-think the test?

January 24, 2012

Coaching grades is a mysterious practice

As a new semester and marking period began at my school, there were lots of "fresh start" lectures by teachers. Even I engaged in this activity, cajoling my more reluctant learners to reflect on the prior nine weeks and consider how they might improve in the second half of the year.

At the end of the day, a colleague was regaling me with an analogy she used with her students, aimed at enlightening them about their own performance during the second quarter of school. This science teacher compared her students to various fish. Some students were the bottom-feeders, doing very little to survive; others were sharks, feeding hungrily on every learning opportunity. She was particularly proud of strolling around her classroom and pointing out which students were sharks, a joke that I'm certain amused some while frustrating others.

As a language arts teacher, I appreciated the metaphor. Considering her anecdote later, though, I contemplated this mysterious practice of goading students into becoming sharks, nudging out the weaker fish, in order to get the few good grades that might be available. Why, I thought, don't all "fresh start" discussions simply encourage students to take charge of their learning, to increase their efforts.

Shouldn't we want our students to want to enter each grading period thinking about learning, rather than thinking about a letter on a report card? 

January 23, 2012

Did Hawaii start the war against RTTT, NCLB?

Teachers in Hawaii served a crushing blow to President Obama's Race to the Top initiative, when 67% of the state's teachers voted against a new contract that would require merit pay, if the state was to earn RTTT money.

Courtesy: Hawaii Tribune-Herald
If a large majority of 9,000 teachers in a state are willing to say no to $75 million in government dollars, because they are so staunchly opposed to being judged on test scores, one must wonder when other states will follow Hawaii's lead.

An even more significant question might be, is this the beginning of the war between educators and politicians that will ultimately strike down No Child Left Behind, putting an end to standardized testing once and for all?

Since NCLB's inception, teachers and researchers nationwide have complained in books, articles and at national conferences that high stakes tests are ineffective in evaluating student performance and, in fact, detract from learning. However, there has not been the solidarity necessary to make a large enough statement to get the attention of education lawmakers and of the Obama administration.

The courageous teachers in Hawaii have made a resounding statement. Perhaps their vote was the first shot fired in a war that has been a long time coming.

Maybe, in addition to saying no to Race to the Top, the teachers in Hawaii were saying good-bye to No Child Left Behind. Maybe they were saying they will no longer stand for high stakes testing. Maybe they were telling President Obama and Arne Duncan that they will not stand for a failing education system. Maybe they were saying that the testing has to stop.

Maybe they were starting a war that every teacher in America needs to join.

January 22, 2012

Traditionalists teaching the wrong lessons

Traditional teachers, hammering students with homework, worksheets and tests, are teaching the wrong lessons and hindering students' ability to learn.

Although I have every confidence that students in my Results Only Learning Environment are learning, some are struggling with the progressive nature of the ROLE.

In a survey, given to my students at the end of the first semester, a surprising 22 percent of students reported that they want homework and tests. Of course, this means that 78 percent prefer the way the ROLE functions, without these traditional methods. However, having one-fifth of my students say they'd be fine with old-style teaching is a concern.

The problem, I surmise, is that students are so tuned into the traditional world of points and percentages that they don't know how to handle the freedoms of a workshop-style, project-based class that requires them to evaluate their own progress and set learning goals accordingly.

Furthermore, students are so concerned about acquiring points on homework assignments for other classes that they often disdain our projects, so they can complete the rote-memory activities my colleagues often assign. When I ask why they are doing a science or social studies homework assignment, instead of working on one of our year-long projects, I'm told that "it's due next period, and if I don't get it done, I'll lose points."

This creates a twofold problem. The most obvious one is that students aren't learning for learning's sake, when they are on a quest for points. Also, it puts me in a difficult spot, as I don't like to remove the choice that the ROLE provides.

As I continue to ponder this conundrum, I realize one thing: education's traditionalists are teaching the wrong lessons.

January 18, 2012

Survey your students about their learning

Want to engage your students like never before and get them excited about your class? Try asking for their opinions about how your class is conducted and about how they learn.

The easiest way to get some quick, honest results is with an online survey. Try a tool like SurveyMonkey. With SurveyMonkey, you can have a 10-question survey, with multiple options, set up in 30 minutes or less.

Remember, though, if you are going to ask students what they want and how they want to learn, you have to be ready to make changes. It might be a bit scary, but it should also be exciting.

I'm surveying my students tomorrow. I'll let you know how it goes.

January 15, 2012

Classroom of work vs. a classroom of learning

In "Students Don't 'Work' - They Learn," featured in Education Week in 1997, the inimitable Alfie Kohn discusses classrooms of work and classrooms of learning.
"In the former (work), the tasks come to be seen as - indeed, are often explicitly presented as - means to an end. What counts is the number of right answers, although even this may be seen as just a prerequisite to snagging a good grade. In fact, the grade may be a means to making the honor roll, which, in turn, may lead to special privileges or rewards provided at school or at home. With each additional inducement, the original act of learning is further devalued."

This remarkably simple notion lies at the foundation of the Results Only Learning Environment. 

Incredulous colleagues often inquire about some of the tenets of the ROLE. They wonder how it's possible to teach without daily worksheets, homework or tests. "How do you measure your students?" is a popular question.

Many are shocked when I tell them that I have no desire to measure my students. I just want them to learn, I explain, and if I place numbers and letters on their activities and projects, it's only a matter of time, before my classroom of learning becomes a classroom of work.

January 14, 2012

Feedback about feedback

As our second grading period draws to a close, I felt it was a prudent idea to remind students how we end the quarter. Even though we discuss reflection, evaluation and feedback often, it's never too much, I think.

A week prior to sitting down for our one-on-one discussions, when we'll reflect on the quarter and decide on a report card grade, I reminded students that they needed to begin the self-evaluation process.

"Remember, the major work we've done for the past nine weeks," I reminded them, heading into a three-day, holiday weekend. Review the feedback you've received and ask yourself how you will answer the question, "What grade should go on the report card?"

This quick reminder of how we do things in a results-only classroom will, I believe, go a long way toward making the evaluation conferences run more smoothly than if I had said nothing at all.

I meet with each student next week. Stay tuned for a report on how it turns out.

January 12, 2012

Why compete with education in other countries?

I've never understood America's preoccupation with competing globally in education. Why is it so important for our students to outscore students in China or Taiwan on a standardized test? Will it raise my quality of life, if little Johnny's math grade is higher than his Japanese counterpart in the fourth grade?

Education Week's examination of how American education stacks up with education in other countries sums up the issue this way:
"Much of the debate centers on whether the U.S. education system has slipped from a position of dominance, or is holding steady, in areas deemed crucial to economic security, particularly the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and so-called 21st-century learning and communications skills."

Let's see if I have this right. If our students' scores on an arbitrary test are substandard, according to some bureaucratic bean counter, the economic security of the entire nation may be in jeopardy. I can't imagine anything more absurd.

I wonder if we were to focus our energies on creating opportunities to collaborate with other countries on best practices just how much better off all of the world's students might be.

ResultsOnly Twitter chat link

In case you missed the first, monthly, scheduled #resultsonly Twitter chat, here is a link to the chat. The first chat was about formative assessment and narrative feedback.

I'd like to offer a special thanks to the people who helped kick off what I'm hoping will one day grow into something as big as other popular education Twitter chats.

Don't miss next month's chat, Wednesday, February 1st at 7 PM EST.

January 11, 2012

The numbers don't add up

While looking at students' grades in other classes, I came across several that didn't make sense. (Of course, by now, you know that grades, in general, don't make much sense to me.) Take a look at this example: 

In a class with 391 possible points, a student has 195 for a 50% F.

Seven of the assignments have 100% scores, which account for 73 points, meaning the student is perfect on nearly 20% of the material. Obviously, this is not a completely inept kid.

Three missing assignments account for 49 points -- 13% of the total. How much incentive does the student have to make them up? Based on the late penalties outlined below, I'd say there's very little incentive.

The student is penalized 25 points for several late activities. These penalties are harsh -- 50% of the value of the activity. Pretty tough for a 13-year-old. If I turn something in late to my principal, I certainly don't lose half of my pay.

Our sample student receives 28.5/99 on two tests, with no evidence of a retake on either. (Don't even get me started on the problem with two tests being 25% of the value of what a student produces in 45 days of work.)

These numbers simply don't add up. I got to thinking that if a report card grade is absolutely necessary, why can't we at least help students like this one taste a little success? So, I did some basic math, and here's what I came up with.

Raising the bar
If the late penalties are eliminated completely, this adds 25 points to the student's total score. Assume that the teacher does some re-teaching/coaching and the student retakes both tests. If the student improves to just 60% on both, her test total increases to 59/99.

These two simple changes (eliminating late penalties and bringing low test scores to just 60%) bring this student to a grade of C. Even if the student gets only 50% on one of the test retakes, she'll still get a C-.

I'd much prefer narrative feedback over the grade, but if some effort is made to help students perform well and embrace learning, the grades they have to get will increase. Then, perhaps they'll feel better about themselves and develop a thirst for learning.

As long as numbers exist, they might as well add up.

January 9, 2012

More bad homework

My son, a third-grader, brought me a reading homework assignment on vocabulary words. In his basal reader program, the vocabulary is taught in isolation -- a complete waste of time.

This particular activity was more troubling than most. He had a list that contained several vocabulary words he didn't know. The assignment instructed students to place the vocabulary word next to its synonym. I asked him if he'd learned the words previously. "No," he replied. Hmm. Sounded strange. How are you supposed to know the synonyms, I inquired. He shrugged.

Without droning on about the uselessness of homework, let me say that the idea of asking a student to locate synonyms for words he hasn't learned, without the help of context clues, is beyond foolish.

If you agree that this is an act of futility, you'll love the coup de grĂ¢ce. The words in question were, "coy" and "toil." When is the last time you heard a 9-year-old use these?

January 8, 2012

Formative assessment: topic of Twitter discussion

As the inaugural #resultsonly scheduled Twitter chat approaches -- Wednesday, 1/11/12 at 7 PM EST -- I thought I'd share a few posts that will help facilitate the chat, which focuses on formative assessment and narrative feedback.

Of course, you're welcome to add any relevant ideas of your own.

Meaningful narrative feedback
The SE2R approach to feedback
Student self-evaluation
Formative assessment and intrinsic motivation

See you in the Twittersphere on Wednesday.

January 7, 2012

Harvard study misses the mark

I have been known to complain about bad or misinterpreted research. Today, I came upon another flawed study, courtesy of education blogger, Joanne Jacobs.

In a post citing a Harvard study on so-called "great teachers," Jacobs reveals that lengthy research by some Harvard educators shows a connection between what the folks at Harvard refer to as "value-added" teaching and going to college and making money, among other things. The study suggests that if students have teachers who are better than average, then these students will make more money than the students who have had bad teachers.

The Harvard study is based on, brace yourself, standardized test results. A "value-added" teacher is one whose students improve their standardized test score from one year to the next. Students in the study are considered successful if they make more money than students who didn't have so-called "value-added" teachers or if the students with "good" teachers went to college or -- my personal favorite -- didn't get pregnant as a teenager.

Am I the only one who thinks this may be the biggest waste of time researchers have ever put into a study?

January 6, 2012

Grand opening: ResultsOnly Twitter chat

About six months ago, I started  tweeting to the #resultsonly Twitter hashtag. I created this Twitter chat stream, in order to heighten awareness about the Results Only Learning Environment and, hopefully, to begin a reform movement that encourages teachers to use more ROLE strategies.

With the new year, I have decided to launch a scheduled #results only Twitter chat -- one that will generate a conversation that focuses on ROLE strategies.

The Grand Opening of the #resultsonly scheduled chat is Wednesday, January 11 at 7 PM EST.

The chat will take place once a month at first. In an effort to avoid competition with other popular education-related chats, such as #edchat, I will narrow the discussion topics for #resultsonly.

Once the audience grows, I'll Tweet out topic surveys, so you can generate the discussions. For our first-ever scheduled chat, I think it's appropriate to discuss one of the rocks of the Results Only Learning Environment -- narrative feedback over grades.

Whether you are a traditionalist, a  progressive, a homeschooler or something in between, don't miss the #resultsonly Twitter chat on Wednesday, January 11 and every Wednesday after at 7 PM EST. All parents and educators are welcome.

Remember, so all participants see your tweets, be sure to add the #resultsonly hashtag to all tweets. See you in the Twittersphere on Wednesday.

New to Twitter? You can learn more about hashtags here.

January 3, 2012

SE2R approach to narrative feedback

One of the keys to a successful results-only classroom is the use of narrative feedback over grades. Although feedback isn't necessarily difficult to provide, a systematic approach can simplify the process.

The system I've created is called the SE2R approach:
  • Summarize
  • Explain
  • Redirect
  • Request resubmission
When a student submits an activity, I respond with basic summary information about what was accomplished. Following is an example of SE2R feedback for a brief writing activity.

"You wrote a brief reflection on The Hunger Games, in which you mix plot details and your own personal connection."
"The summary information demonstrates comprehension of plot elements including characterization and conflict -- elements of fiction we recently learned. I think, however, that you misidentify the rising action. I like how you show empathy for Katniss and her plight, as she faces the prospect of killing Peeta (hint: what story element is this?). Elaborating on this part would help."
Redirect and Request resubmission
"Please review the presentation on rising action on our classroom web site. Then, revise your reflection, reworking the part on rising action, in order to demonstrate understanding of the concept. Then, elaborate on your feelings about Katniss's tough decision near the end of the story. When you have finished, e-mail me or send me a message on our private message board, telling me that you've done so."
What makes the SE2R approach integral to mastery learning is that it removes the kind of subjectivity present in grades and rubrics, while providing students with clear information about what they've accomplished and what they still need to do.

Most important, SE2R allows students to revisit activities and projects, so they can make corrections and resubmit for re-evaluation. This is what teaching and learning should look like.

Are you using anything like SE2R? What advantages and problems do you see in this system of feedback?

January 1, 2012

New Year's resolutions for teachers

Do you make a New Year's resolution as a teacher? What sorts of promises should teachers be making to improve their own classes and education, in general?

My teacher resolution for 2012 is to continue to grow my year-long projects and to help my students get the most out of them. This requires a commitment to daily research and individual and small-group coaching. I will need to work closely with students to help them align their project goals with their step-by-step plans. More how-to videos will need to be created, in order to help guide students to places and tools that will generate learning opportunities.

My education resolution is to get more teachers committed to building a Results Only Learning Environment. This will take presenting at conferences, posting and commenting on blogs and social media, like Twitter, and discussing the value of results-only learning with colleagues.

So, what teacher and education resolution have you made?