Listening, Rather than Speaking

“We can try to identify meta-rational people through their cognitive and conversational styles. Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.”

Eli Dourado, “Paul Krugman Is Brilliant, but Is He Meta-Rational?” on The Umlaut

A Benefit of Thinking Slow

“Turing showed that by accumulating multiple samples of information over time, the code-breakers could increase their confidence in a particular setting being correct.

Remarkably, the brain appears to use a similar scheme of evidence accumulation to deal with difficult decisions. . . .

Putting these findings together, we learn that there is a benefit from being slow. When faced with a novel scenario, one that hasn’t been encountered before, Turing’s equations tell us that slower decisions are more accurate and less susceptible to noise. In psychology, this is known as the ‘speed-accuracy trade-off’ and is one of the most robust findings in the past 100 years or so of decision research. Recent research has begun to uncover a specific neural basis for setting this trade-off. Connections between the cortex and a region of the brain known as the subthalamic nucleus control the extent to which an individual will slow down his or her decisions when faced with a difficult choice. The implication is that this circuit acts like a temporary brake, extending decision time to allow more evidence to accumulate, and better decisions to be made.”

–Steve Fleming, “Hesitate!: Quick decision-making might seem bold, but the agony of indecision is your brain’s way of making a better choice” on Aeon

Economic Opportunity + Education

IMG_20130731_195853

I recently wrote about the need to provide options for children and families living in communities impacted by poverty.

Sometimes it can be frustrating as an educator to talk about poverty, because there’s a tone in the sector that this is something we shouldn’t talk about. “Keep your focus in the classroom,” some people seem to say, “don’t worry about what you can’t control.”

Thankfully, there’s educators and activists out there refusing to keep their heads down and ignore the problems of the community they work within.

Here’s an example of a teacher, Stephen Ritz, who’s not only helping to educate his students in the South Bronx, but creating economic opportunities for them within their community. Take a look:

What’s intriguing is that Ritz presents us with a way out from the polarization of poverty vs. education: we can tackle both, and turn the equation into the win-win of economic opportunities + education.

This is the kind of innovation that I’d like to see more of. Because the children are learning skills and knowledge that will empower them with more options. They are gaining capital: social, natural, psychological, and economic. And that’s the kind of wealth that we need to cultivate in all our communities.

Check out the Green Bronx Machine for more on this great work going down in the South Bronx.

2 ways of looking at #Ferguson

1)

A thematic patterning of injustice,
a criminalization of birth,
a timeworn motif of yet another
young life
sacrificed to a simmering white indifference,

the blank stares
of summer pavement.

An introduction to some
heretofore willfully oblivious Caucasians
of the black side of American history.

2)

An allegory of what happens
when laws are enforced
without just representation.

A city defined
by civic disengagement.

A segregation from agency so replete
the primary constituents
have no gussied words to convey
their grievances,

such that all that is said is a scream
falling past
on flinching ears.

District Stewards, Rather Than District Leaders?

“If a key challenge facing New Zealand’s education system is the lack of trust between ‘the Ministry’ and ‘the Sector’, then rebuilding trust is paramount. No single initiative or programme can do this of course, and progress will be measured over years, not months. But after spending seven months asking educators what support they most wanted from the Ministry, the most common response was to be understood and supported. As one principal put it, “It’d be nice to have someone from the Ministry ask the questions you’re asking, and then serve as a resource to connect us with others who can help”. . . .

“Toward that end, I propose the Ministry create new Sector Stewardships . . . [to] build a bridge between policy and practice.  . . .

 

“Both schools and Stewards would understand that the only deliverable item in the programme would be this: Stewards should return to their Ministry offices with exactly one issue or question that they observed the school grappling with. Stewards would then endeavour to help the school think through the issue, and perhaps connect educators from their host schools to Ministry resources that might help the educators in some way. This would be done in collaborative fashion with the aim of building a human relationship between the Ministry and the sector, one school and one employee at a time.”

–Benjamin Riley, “Science, Data and Decisions in New Zealand’s Education System

NY State Commissioner John King on Poverty and Test Results

“As you can see, although there is a relationship between poverty and performance, there are exceptions at all levels of wealth. Just as there are schools that perform above and below the statewide proficiency level at lower levels of wealth, there are schools that perform above and below the statewide proficiency level at higher levels of wealth. . . .

“These results make clear that those who claim that demography is destiny and that we cannot improve teaching and learning until we have first fixed poverty are simply mistaken. In New York, there are many examples of higher poverty / higher performance schools . . . 

“This is not to imply that poverty is an unimportant factor – it is extremely important, for all of us. But the idea that poverty or family circumstances outside of school are insurmountable obstacles for teaching and learning is a fallacy. As educators, we should all be active in the national discourse on issues of inequality and how best to expand opportunity for all. However, we must commit ourselves to use the time we have with our students in school as effectively as possible and to do all we can to ensure that education helps to shape a path out of poverty. Our colleagues have done it. Our students have done it. We can do it.

“We need to understand the factors that help a school achieve better learning outcomes for high needs students (higher poverty / higher performance schools). Conversely, we also need to understand the reasons why other schools do not perform as well as their demographic peers, despite having an abundance of resources and wealth (lower poverty / lower performance schools). What are the policy, leadership, and instructional practices that produce great results for our kids that can be echoed and expanded across the state? What are the educational investments – from high-quality pre-K to expanded learning time to community schools partnerships providing wrap-around services to socioeconomically integrated magnet schools – we need to make as a state in order to accelerate improvement?

“That is our challenge – to understand how to keep getting better.”

–NY State Commissioner John King, in reference to NY test results in a message in an EngageNY newsletter

 

What Is Success?

Ecoschool

In an interesting coincidence, Will and I have been writing about Eva Moskowitz and poverty, and here the NY state test results come along. Success Academy made up 7 out 15 of the top scorers in NY state, according to the NY Post. And while of course poverty level correlated with reading performance, there were the outliers of high poverty schools that outperformed state averages.

But Success Academy was more than just a freak outlier—it blew other schools out of the water, and it did so consistently across multiple schools.

In the NY Daily News, Robert Pondiscio writes in “How Does She Do It?“:

What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them.

It’s worth repeating a challenge I threw out earlier to Eva Moskowitz in a recent post: share the practices, content, and protocols your schools are using so others can benefit. That’s what being a “public” school is all about, right? Collaboration, sharing, learning. That’s what our public system of education should be doing if we’re truly dedicated to improving outcomes for all of our children, and not just some.

As John King also said: “The question becomes, what’s happening in these schools that’s leading to those better outcomes?”

I agree with Pondiscio and King. I genuinely want to know what’s happening at Success Academy. And I want to know from the perspective of a school as an ecosystem. From this perspective, some questions I would ask would be oriented around the main pillars of a strong school community: 1) leadership, 2) content, and 3) environment.

Leadership

  • What do the formal and informal leaders say and do? How and what do they communicate consistently? (This includes student leaders).
  • Is the leadership distributed?
  • What mechanisms are in place for students, parents, teachers, and leaders to collaborate and receive continuous feedback? How do leaders respond to feedback?
  • How is diversity in student ability, knowledge, and skills strategically recognized and cultivated?

Content

  • What are the values and vision behind assessment and unit design?
  • What texts are taught in ELA? Why?
  • How well do topics and themes build knowledge and understanding of academic domains and the world sequentially across classrooms and grades?
  • How are students engaged in their community through units?
  • What scaffolds and interventions for students who are struggling are applied consistently both in and out of classrooms?
  • What opportunities beyond academics are provided for all students?

Environment

  • What does it feel like when you walk into a Success Academy school? What does it sound like? What does it look like?
  • How relevant is posted work and displays to students and their community?
  • What is the ratio of positive to negative language used by students and staff in the building?
  • How (psychologically) safe do students with special needs feel in the hallways, lunch rooms, and classrooms?
  • How are supportive social relationships and networks developed and sustained by the school?

These are just some of the questions I would start with.

State test results are just one indicator. Remember, we’re playing the long game here. And there is evidence to suggest that test results are a shallow indicator.

I don’t say this to put down what Success Academy has accomplished. Their students deserve our recognition. They’ve worked hard for this.

But what I want to know is whether what Success Academy is doing is truly preparing students for the future, for the long-term.

What is success? And what does it look like? And is what Success Academy doing truly an exemplar?

And more importantly—what does success look like over the long haul?

District vs. Charter Is a Zero-Sum Game

“But schools are not sports teams. For students, education shouldn’t be a zero-sum game among adults. It doesn’t have to be. Adult labels can be put aside in favor of better schools for students. Some places are doing that. In a score of diverse communities, leaders from local school districts and high-performing charter schools are coming together to put students first.”

–Don Shalvey, “Choosing Excellent Schools—Not Charter Versus District” on Ed Week

“Charter and district sectors are often locked in a battle that hurts families. Too many students are falling through the cracks because advocates and policymakers are more focused on the fight between districts and charters than on making choice work for families.”

–Robin Lake, “Making School Choice Work Requires Leadership” on Edweek

A Curriculum as Catalyst for Productive Struggle

Along the lines of what I wrote about in my last post about balancing a productive struggle in the classroom, here’s a post on Puzzl_ED about an interesting curriculum for math called JUMP, created by a non-profit, which seems to strike that balance.

Mike Goldstein makes the following argument in his post:

Instead of creating a utopian public policy ideal where we attract teachers with unusually high math aptitude, and then train them really effectively, so they can invent their own clever lessons — utopian because none of the 3 things typically happens now in real life — put the teachers we have now in a position to succeed through very prescribed curriculum.

Though my favorite thing in the world is develop my own curriculum (really), I do think that having a strong “prescribed” curriculum in place is fundamental, given the lack of time and guidance teachers have. I’d rather have something I can draw from and re-interpret based on my own understanding, rather than nothing at all. And from what I’ve seen, teachers are hungry to have quality resources and content at hand.

Other than Expeditionary Learning’s and Core Knowledge’s K-5 material, anyone know of anything comparable to JUMP being done for ELA curriculum? Seems much harder to accomplish in the murky and fuzzy realm of that domain.

Slouching Towards Progressivism

classroom

You would not likely mistake me for a Dewey eyed constructivist. I get kind of dogmatic against the teaching of skills over literary content, for example, though I’m not quite so hard line against progressive instructional precepts as some, such as Harry Webb (my favorite ed curmudgeon. Read his blog regularly). If you’re really bored, you can read some of my circuitous expositions against constructivism here or here for further confirmation of my anti-constructivism.

But I’m moving into my 6th year of teaching special education, and my thoughts on progressive instructional approaches have shifted. Let me explain why, then let’s examine three articles that might provide some corroboration of my reasoning.

Coro New York ELC: Experiential Learning at its Finest

I took part in the first cohort of Coro New York Education Leadership Collaborative last year. The Coro methodology is experiential based, and in this sense progressive. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first when I sniffed constructivist signifiers at the outset of the program in words such as “self-discovery” and “skills.”

But after experiencing how effective well structured experiential group learning could be, I shed some of my cynicism. My co-teacher and I later brought the methodology to our own students and planned what we called an “Inquiry Day” on the issue of segregation (you can see the full unit we developed here), providing our students an opportunity to learn directly from group-guided interviews with inspiring thought leaders and activists. This experience for my students was just as powerful as it had been for me as an adult on Coro ELC strategy days.

I work with students who are often so accustomed to failure that they have long given up putting forth effort. Finding methods to include and engage them are just as critical as providing them with essential domain-specific knowledge. This is why I have shifted in my thinking.

Supporting Ideas for Embracing Progressive Elements of Instruction

Idea #1: “You do, y’all do, we do”

Elizabeth Green, one of the sharpest minds in the realm of education journalism, recently published a book, “Building a Better Teacher.” In a controversial sample from the book on NY Times, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?,” Green presents a challenge to the traditional lesson format many teachers use. The “I do, we do, you do” format (something I utilize in my own lesson plan template), stems from principles of direct and explicit teaching: the teacher models and demonstrates, the students practice with guidance and feedback, and then practice is conducted independently.

How could you teach math in school that mirrors the way children learn it in the world? That was the challenge Magdalene Lampert set for herself in the 1980s, when she began teaching elementary-school math in Cambridge, Mass. She grew up in Trenton, accompanying her father on his milk deliveries around town, solving the milk-related math problems he encountered. . . .

She knew there must be a way to tap into what students already understood and then build on it. In her classroom, she replaced “I, We, You” with a structure you might call “You, Y’all, We.” Rather than starting each lesson by introducing the main idea to be learned that day, she assigned a single “problem of the day,” designed to let students struggle toward it — first on their own (You), then in peer groups (Y’all) and finally as a whole class (We). The result was a process that replaced answer-getting with what Lampert called sense-making. By pushing students to talk about math, she invited them to share the misunderstandings most American students keep quiet until the test. In the process, she gave them an opportunity to realize, on their own, why their answers were wrong. . . .

Over the years, observers who have studied Lampert’s classroom have found that students learn an unusual amount of math. Rather than forgetting algorithms, they retain and even understand them [Bold added].

Definitely constructivist elements in play here, which set alarms ringing in anti-constructivists minds. Tom Loveless wrote a scathing rebuttal to combat these constructivist implications.

But this flip from “I do, we do, you do” to “You do, y’all do, we do” is an instructional approach I find very compelling.

The idea of allowing students to process and struggle with something based on their current level of understanding, then slowly unpack those misconceptions and insights via group discussion, is something that I’ve witnessed take place very powerfully in classrooms.

Idea #2: Foster Productive Confusion

In an article by Steve Kolowich, “Confuse Students to Help Them Learn,” there’s support for Magdalene Lampert’s approach to instruction:

“It seems that, if you just present the correct information, five things happen,” he said. “One, students think they know it. Two, they don’t pay their utmost attention. Three, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking. Four, they don’t learn a thing. And five, perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before.”

“Common wisdom holds that confusion should be avoided during learning and rapidly resolved if and when it arises,” wrote a team of researchers in a paper published earlier this year. While this might be true when it comes to superficial tasks such as memorizing facts and figures, “Confusion is likely to promote learning at deeper levels of comprehension under appropriate conditions.”

In other words: If teachers want students to learn the really important stuff, like comprehending difficult texts and modeling complex systems, they should put their students in confusing situations.

This is where harnessing the power of confusion becomes difficult—and risky. Some students are likely to snap sooner than others. “We still don’t know how soon to rescue them from the confusion,” Mr. Graesser told The Chronicle in an interview, and the right answer undoubtedly varies from student to student. Researchers say that confusing students works only if instructors can track and moderate the confusion.

There’s the rub: Detecting confusion is hard, especially in the moment. So is controlling it. For an instructor standing before a sea of faces, it’s virtually impossible [Bold added].

This caveat at the end is important: it suggests that to balance confusion with success is extremely difficult to achieve. This can explain in part some reluctance to adopting such an approach wholesale for classroom pedagogy. Great teaching is hard. I’ve had the honor of working with some great teachers, and I’ve seen this approach work. I’ve also seen it fail miserably—most especially when I try to implement it with my own students in a self-contained setting.

With students who struggle the most in the classroom, achieving this balance is tricky. We want to “confuse” and challenge our students to unveil their misconceptions, but we also need to engage and motivate them. This is where our next idea comes in.

Idea #3: Make Your Audience Care

In a seemingly unrelated article about making films, some advice from Pixar’s Andrew Stanton stood out to me in relation to this:

Since we’re all natural problem solvers, it brings us great satisfaction to solve problems put in front of us. Contrary to what it might seem, we actually like to work for results rather than be given them, and this goes for watching films, too. Audiences don’t tend to enjoy films with a lot of exposition and over-explanation or over-simplification of plot and character motive, because it takes the fun out of putting the pieces together themselves; it denies them the chance to engage in the story, to participate in it, which, in the end, doesn’t inspire them to care [bold added].

In other words, engaging our students—making them care—could be viewed as part and parcel of allowing them struggle through something before we provide them with any answers. This beautiful struggle occurs when we figure things out on our own. But in a classroom, such struggle must be carefully designed: “The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience.” It’s not something that just happens. “Discovery” learning must be rightly critiqued as BS. But a well-crafted problem, designed intentionally to surface deep-seated misconceptions and create productive confusion, can be simultaneously engaging and enlightening.

What do you think?