What if there was a method that could not only explicitly teach students core writing skills, but simultaneously deepen their domain-specific knowledge?
Turns out there is: it’s called the Hochman method.
I’d heard about Judith Hochman’s writing method for some time, but only finally got the opportunity to attend a workshop last month. In case you haven’t heard about the Hochman writing method, you can read more about it’s impact in Peg Tyre’s 2012 article in the Atlantic, and get an overview of the method on it’s website.
In a nutshell, Hochman’s method is a systematic, explicit approach to equipping students with the ability to recognize and construct clear and complex sentences, only then moving on to constructing paragraphs, and from there to composition. The vast majority of teachers (such as myself) go straight to composition, then use generalized rubrics that provide little specific guidance on revising for grammar and mechanics.
Students are thus passed on from grade to grade with little instruction on constructing well-written, fluent, grammatically accurate sentences beyond vague comments such as, “Make sure to reread your sentences out loud to check for grammar.”
But there’s even a deeper potential impact of Hochman’s method: it reinforces content knowledge in tandem to building writing knowledge and ability.
In a former post on ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, we explored just how critical–yet how very rare–it is to have a school-wide, systematic curriculum that reinforces knowledge systematically and sequentially across classrooms.
Furthermore, we know from research that one of the most powerful levers for building and reinforcing knowledge is “low-stakes quizzing.” When used to interleave and distribute practice across time, this is a highly effective form of transferring information into long-term memory.
Like many of the findings from the realm of cognitive science, this all sounds great in isolation, but when you try to translate it to a school and a classroom, it gets significantly more sticky, especially in a subject like ELA. Many things we cover don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice quiz.
And many teachers are highly allergic to anything that smells like a standardized test. And even when they aren’t, developing a well-designed and valid multiple choice question is surprisingly intensive.
Here’s where Hochman’s method comes in. Her method provides explicit and clear sentence construction activities that can be applied to any content and that can be used to assess comprehension of texts or topics. This sentence-level work serves the same function, in other words, that low-stakes quizzing would, while also explicitly teaching writing skills.
So imagine this: a school creates an initiative, after being trained in Hochman’s methods, to embed sentence-level activities into every text that is read in social studies, science, and ELA. These activities would serve as formative assessments of content. And once those activities for each text are developed, a resource packet is made that can be used again and again in the future, whether or not a teacher leaves the building. That’s an endeavor that could not only be high impact but furthermore sustainable.
Have you ever heard of a “low floor (or threshold), high ceiling” task?
I’ve stumbled across it over the last few years in the math realm, such as in articles by Jo Boaler, or in tasks by Dan Meyer, and I found it intriguing as a general framework for lesson and unit planning. Finding ways to include both lower and higher performing students in rigorous academic instruction is something I think a lot about, and this seemed worth exploring. However, I work primarily in special education and ELA, not math, so I was having trouble generalizing.
So I did a little more digging. Here’s what I found:
The concept of low floor, high ceiling was first formulated in the 1970s by Seymour Papert, a professor at MIT heavily influenced by Piaget, as a design principle for a programming language called Logo. The idea was to make programming accessible to young children, while simultaneously being usable at a more complex level by adults.
A robot turtle was developed to provide concrete access to kids for using the programming language.
When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert (who, sadly, passed away last month) often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). With his Logo programming language, for example, kids could start by drawing simple squares and triangles, but gradually create more complex geometric patterns over time.
But the most important lesson that I learned from Seymour isn’t captured in the low-floor/high-ceiling metaphor. For a more complete picture, we need to add an extra dimension: wide walls. It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways from floor to ceiling.
Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.
. . . Our ultimate goal is to help all kids develop their thinking, develop their voices, and develop their identities. None of that will happen unless we continually ask: Who are we including? Who are we excluding? And how can we provide everyone—everyone—with opportunities for exploring, experimenting, and expressing themselves?
Make it as Simple as Possible – and Maybe Even Simpler
Give People What They Want – Not What They Ask For
“Often, designs with well-chosen parameters are more successful than designs with fully adjustable parameters” ← I like this quote. This connects to the idea of constraints.
Invent Things That You Would Want to Use Yourself
In ELA, this translates into assigning tasks that you would want to do yourself. For writing tasks, this most likely would result in something you’d actually enjoy reading.
Iterate, Iterate – then Iterate Again
This is all well and good if you’re designing a gadget or a programming language, and it kinda makes sense in math in the sense of a well-designed problem, but what does “low floor, high ceiling” mean in terms of designing lessons or units in ELA? This is where it gets murkier. Does a concept that applies to design have a translation to academic literacy instruction?
Here’s my thoughts on that question:
Usually in ELA we are engaged with texts. A rich text has multiple layers of meaning and ideas well-worth exploring, but the level of abstraction and demands of the language can be a barrier for many students. We can therefore think of the text itself as the “high ceiling” for many lessons (I think, in any case, I could certainly be off base on this).
In many cases, therefore, the “high ceiling” aspect has already somewhat been defined in an ELA lesson (assuming you are studying rich texts together as a class).
So then, how you do you provide a “low floor” for all of your students to a complex text? And more abstractly, how do you support a wide diversity of pathways or perspectives?
Designing Scaffolded Tasks and Activities
What comes first to mind are the tasks and activities that a teacher designs to prepare their students for understanding the text, for interacting with the text, and for responding to the text. For an exemplar of this type of scaffolding, I highly recommend taking a look at Lesson 2 from Stanford’s Understanding Language unit on persuasion, specifically at how they scaffold student understanding of the Gettysburg address through multiple readings that are even fun. Close reading instruction will readily fail when a teacher simply asks students to re-read a complex text multiple times with no varied and scaffolded forms of engagement.
Designing Provocative Questions
I think the most critical consideration for “wide walls” and spanning from low floor to high ceiling is what sort of questions you plan. For example, for an 8th grade unit I co-designed on the topic of segregation, we generated a series of questions, ascending from elemental (“What is segregation? What is integration?”) to provocative and open-ended: (“NYC schools are largely segregated by race and class. Is it possible to provide all children an excellent education in a segregated school system? If so, how? If not, why not and what steps must we take to fix this?”). That final question represents the cumulative question for the unit. There’s certainly room for different ways of expressing knowledge based on a student’s own perspective on the topic. This could be via an essay, an action plan, a presentation, or a socratic discussion, as a few possible examples.
A critical element to both “low floor” and “high ceiling” is designing units and lessons around a provocative question. For example, watch this video of master teacher Sarah Wessling Brown modeling a high school ELA lesson on monsters (Easter egg: see if you can spot me in the background). She asks the provocative question, “What do monsters teach us about human nature?” and then designs engaging activities to engage students in the texts and knowledge they need to explore it.
I think questions like these embody what LFHCWW design is all about. They provide both engagement, and therefore access, but have ample room for sophistication and complex thinking.
One mistake some teachers make is to assume that a “higher order” question is beyond the purview of their struggling students, and they try to dumb down their questions. My advice is to worry less about the “cognitive level” of a question, and more about the language that you use and the manner in which you phrase it. Language and phrasing can either present a barrier to understanding, or a scaffold. A precisely constructed question provides the initial direction and language that students will need.
We haven’t even really gotten started
But this post is getting overlong. How do you think the concept of a task with low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls can apply in ELA classrooms? Share, and let’s build a common understanding of what this might mean in our lesson and unit design.
Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences. (Bold added)
Epstein’s challenge to the “information processing” model is highly relevant to education and worth considering the implications of. I would pair this reading with the quantum theory of QBism: QBism challenges the notion of an “objective reality,” suggesting instead that reality lies in the eye of the beholder.
So how do you think we go about stitching the country back together?
Well, the most important thing that I’m focused on is how we create a common set of facts. That sounds kind of abstract. Another way of saying it is, how do we create a common story about where we are.
. . . It requires better civics education among our kids so that we can sort through what’s true and what’s not.
It’s well past due that New York made it clear that public education is about learning from and about our differences, so that we can better foster our shared knowledge and understanding. Increasing student access to a diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and people must be an explicit priority of our system of education if we are to continue to have a functioning democratic republic.
On election day, many New Yorkers experienced a jarring disjoint; the world we thought we knew transformed before our eyes. We have grown increasingly sheltered within our own immediate social media spheres, where it’s easier to disregard the arguments in different communities across our nation about the ongoing tensions that exist between equality and liberty, the power of the federal government vs. local communities, and between honoring our differences and backgrounds while developing and maintaining a shared set of values and understanding. These are essential arguments that thread back to the founding of our nation.
Similarly, in many of our public schools, students spend their days with others who are mostly just like them — they may look similar, speak the same language, or share the same values. And any who don’t adhere to these norms tend to be ostracized, whether due to appearance, belief, or behavior. Human beings, most especially children and adolescents, are highly attuned to differences. When I first began teaching, I was taken aback by how much attention my students paid to the state of my shoes!
And while there is much talk of a “culturally responsive” or “relevant” curriculum, the reality is that even a basic core curriculum is all too often lacking, not to mention access to adequate resources and opportunities and experiences beyond the school. Schools require coherent, well-structured, and thoughtfully sequenced content that will build students’ understanding of their wider society and world.
When students from segregated schools and communities graduate to an institution of higher education, or into a field of employment, they may suddenly feel a sense of disjoint between their social identity and the norms of the institution they’ve joined. They may discover that many others may not share their values nor experiences, and they must learn to assume a new manner of speaking, navigate a new culture, and demonstrate new behaviors. Many find their way into a niche where they can be accepted and supported in their transition into adulthood. Some young adults, however, find themselves stranded and unable to navigate across this divide. And the norms and practices of their society’s leaders and institutions will grow increasingly alien to them.
It is the fundamental mission of public education to support our student’s success in that transition into adulthood, to equip them with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that will enable them to question and clarify other’s perspectives who are different, while effectively communicating and refining their own. To empower them to partake in the great debates of our nation and expand those conversations to include themselves.
Yet if we are honest in our reckoning, New York state is patently failing in this mission. In 2014, a UCLA Civil Rights Project report stamped NY with the shameful status of host to the most segregated schools in our nation. And this year, EdBuild released a report on the most extremely segregating school boundaries across the nation. Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica made the list, making NY number 6 out of the 50 states with the most segregating districts.
Families and neighborhoods with the most wealth continue to have the greatest access to a high quality education and positive life outcomes. For children less fortunate than others, segregation manifests in less access to resources, quality teachers, and safe and clean learning spaces.
And for both populations, an increasing lack of shared understanding and communication leads to further disengagement from participation in the civic institutions that should serve us all.
“…many trucking companies use cameras that automatically record a driver whenever there’s sudden braking, swerving or speeding up. But in one company Bernstein studied, the videos never go to management and are not used in performance reviews (unless the driver is texting-at-the-wheel dangerous). Instead, a team of coaches, whose only job is help drivers improve, receives the videos. Drivers, he says, like and trust that the system is there to help them, because it keeps their mistakes within a trusted circle of people who are not wielding power over their lives.
…In instituting these four forms of privacy—privacy within team boundaries, privacy limits on employee data, privacy in decision-making, and privacy about time—the organizations Bernstein studied refused the temptation to observe (or try to observe) everything. That refusal did not cost them profits or effectiveness. Instead, respect for privacy enhanced their success.”
Observations of teacher practice have become a rote chore of paperwork to try and please accountability mavens. Those same mavens then get in a huff when they don’t find a whole bunch of teachers rated ineffective.
How about you just let teachers observe one another and give each other feedback, and administrators just sit in on that process every now and then? You might find that to be much more effective than the rigmarole of compliance that teacher evaluations have become.
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.
There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.
In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.
Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”
Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.
. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?
Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .
. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”
This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.
But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:
. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”
A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.
…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.
. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.
Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.
But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:
Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.
. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.
So the solution? Software!
Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!
But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:
We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.
I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.
The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):
The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.
. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.
I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.
. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.
A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.
And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.
The experience of being a part of a diverse and inclusive community is equipping me and my kids to go forward and connect and speak up in a world of difference, however messily. We proceed respectfully, and with eyes and ears wide open. We disagree, and we discuss. Our days have more texture, more color, more depth. There is tension, yes, and sometimes confusion; there are hurt and bad feelings, and there are misunderstandings. But there has also been so much joy. Despite the instinctive resistance to leaving “the comfort zone,” which all of us have, when we persevere through that feeling, we profit. It is the right thing to do. But it also feels really, really good.
. . . integrating our nation’s schools is not the whole solution — but I believe it’s a powerful step that will have a powerful ripple effect. I believe that integrated schools can have a powerfully stabilizing and sustaining effect in a time of chaos. I’ve already seen how my own community has anchored me, and many others, during this tumultuous past week. It is a place where we know we have a common investment in our future. It is a place where we talk and think about justice. It is something real and tangible in an increasingly virtual world. It is spiritual infrastructure.
This weekly roundup will be a true mishmash. But hey, consider it your seasonal style stew. And by the way, be a voter this Tuesday. If you care about education, check out the one candidate who has voiced any views about education policy in this election.
The latest diversity report shows NYC schools have made some progress, but still have a long way to go to make increasing school diversity systemic.
Public advocate Letitia James and CSA President Ernest Logan have proposed a great idea for doing just that: the NYCDOE should appoint a Chief Diversity Officer and actually commit to it.
Here’s some further support for the idea that the human brain operates best when it is balanced between the hinterlands of chaos and order — just like schools.
The New Yorker visits Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, Queens, for a mock election that the teachers worry might be teaching the wrong lessons to kids who have no previous elections to compare it to.
At every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation: middle school students unable to tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; high school students taking at face value a cooked-up chart from the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee; college students credulously accepting a .org top-level domain name as if it were a Good Housekeeping seal.
Robert Pondiscio argues that charter proponents need to shift their pitches away from social justice in the inner city towards the promotion of programs appealing to middle school parents.
Individuals who exhibit greater self-control are able to do so because they can appraise when and where a specific self-control strategy should be used. Sadly, it is this very ability to ascertain what is contextually-appropriate that those who struggle with self-control may lack.
Giving ex-cons psychiatric drugs reduces reoffending rates. Which is great–except this study comes from Sweden, where they most likely have the healthcare coverage that would actually provide that medication. Good luck getting this going in the US.
An often overlooked intervention that can improve students’ academic performance is fitness training.
Sometimes it seems like people think that I have consciously chosen to have a brain that is physically different from others. Nope — I do not have a designer brain!
When it takes me longer to finish a test or when I need to get up and pace, believe me that’s not what I would have designed. Would you? A lot of the time I feel like I am on trial — that I have to prove that I need help. That’s how it is with hidden disabilities, which by the way, 70 percent of all disabilities are.
What if classes were as long (or short) as they needed to be instead of a fixed amount of time? What if instead of taking tests, the students created them? That would be so much more interesting and useful.