Passion Does Not Equate With Knowledge

It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention.

. . .“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write.

—Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Minds” in The New Yorker

Smorgasbord: Differences, and Teaching for All

“1960s Ann Arbor Town Club smorgasbord — advertising postcard.” by Wystan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

People raised in different contexts think differently

Western and Eastern societies see the world differently. “If we are what we see, and we are attending to different stuff, then we are living in different worlds.” It may even come down to the difference between a historical context of growing wheat vs. growing rice. BBC

Rich people and poor people see the world differently. Poor people pay much more attention to other people around them. Science of Us

Risk-taking is an adaptive strategy when raised in chaotic environments. “Given that fast life-history strategies are triggered in uncertain situations, a stable environment can work wonders.Nautilus

So you want to become rich in the United States? The best way is to become rich is to be born into the right set of parents. The second best way is to find a rich spouse. The Economist

And the rich are more likely to become entrepreneurs. The Guardian

How we self-classify our own race is problematic for assertions based on race. There’s a tendency for those of mixed descent to self-classify as white. American Prospect

And maybe instead of classifying animals into species, we’d do better to identify them by their key traits and characteristics. RealClearScience

Men’s brains are bigger than women’s. Mindhacks

But there are few differences in cognitive ability between men and women.

Men and women require different types of check-ins to keep long-distance relationships going. Men need face-to-face check-ins, while a phone call is enough for women. The Guardian

Therefore, promoting diversity is key

Once trees in the rainforest are connected with vines, they don’t function as individual trees anymore—at least from the perspective of ant diversity. The Atlantic

Highways may have contributed to rural and urban division in American politics, as revealed by maps. National Geographic

School choice may lead to more segregation. CityLab

As demonstrated by Denver, a much lauded exemplar of school choice. NPR Ed

“The Waltons would have a more dramatic impact on the well-being of children by paying their workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour than they do by opening charter schools and enfeebling community public schools.” The NY Review of Books

Though the use of vouchers may possibly reduce some racial stratification, in a convoluted sort of way. The Atlantic

But vouchers are viewed as problematic even by many of those within the “school choice” charter community. “I’ve worked in charter schools nationally for two decades, and the vast majority of people I know who work in and support charters are deeply troubled by vouchers.” Ascend Learning blog:

Ben Carson could undo past efforts at housing desegregation. The New York Times

A challenge to previous research that suggested that greater diversity generates distrust. The distrust may simply stem from good old prejudice. Scientific American

Unfortunately, training may not be enough to remove racial bias. “There’s no good proof that implicit bias can be permanently unlearned, and little evidence about the best way to unlearn it.” Nautilus

“Having a shared sense of identity, norms, and history generally promotes trust.” The American Interest

“Americans can do better. Remember: America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument—between Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum.” The Atlantic

And teach everyone well

A project-based learning critique: “if we’re designing schools and syllabus for the real word, that means teaching everyone well, not just a fraction of the lucky sperm club.” Tom Bennett’s blog:

The JUMP Math curriculum speaks to just that type of whole-class design, and is showing strong signs of success. “Our data shows that if you teach to the whole class, the whole class does better.” Quartz

Along the same lines, I argue for a focus on an inclusive, rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students as the best way to support students with disabilities, rather than focusing on abstract, idealized models. Schools & Ecosystems

Acquiring knowledge and then thinking about how it fits into what we already know helps boost our attention. PsyBlog

Here’s 20 observable characteristics of effective teaching. TeachThought

For faster learning, interleave studying with sleep. BPS Research Digest

Napping, after all, is just as effective as cramming. BigThink

And if you want to grow new brain cells, go running instead of lifting weights: PsyBlog

“a well-targeted tree campaign could be of the smartest investments a hot, polluted city can make.” And those plantings should be well-targeted to improve air quality for schools. Vox

Another smart investment? The buildings we house students in. “People know that their physician plays an important role in their health, but sometimes building managers can play a nearly equal role,” says Allen. “The janitor of a school, for example, has a big impact on the health of those kids.” National Geographic



Special Education: Inclusion or Specialized Intervention

“Street Crowd” by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (French (born Switzerland), Lausanne 1859–1923 Paris) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

A fair amount of academic literature calls for clinical, evidence-based models of intensive intervention for students with disabilities in K-12. Yet in the field, there is limited effective implementations of such interventions.

Models such as Response to Intervention (RTI), multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), and standard, evidence-based protocols and programs all make complete sense when you learn about them. But there’s also a problem with these interventions: they are based on clinical frames of implementation, as in a trained clinician in the given model or protocol delivers the intervention in a prescribed manner.

The daily reality of a K-12 school, however, is far from clinical. Opportunities to deliver prescribed interventions, whether in a small group or in the ideal of a 1:1 setting, are few and far between. Moreover, opportunities to be trained in such interventions are few and far between. One is certainly not trained in any given intervention in any traditional education program.

The very model of a self-contained classroom, a class in which students with more severe disabilities are separated from their peers, relies upon this clinical ideal. And again, in isolation, as an ideal, it makes perfect sense. Let’s separate out the kids with greatest of needs so we can provide them with individualized, supportive instruction.

Similarly, within an inclusive classroom, district leaders continually speak about and prescribe the need to move away from a one-teach, one assist model to a parallel, station, or team teaching model. Or they speak of the need to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction.

Idealized models that make perfect sense and sound great, but that rarely play out that way on the ground.

A Division Between Inclusion and Specialized Intervention

There is some scholarly debate about this. Fuchs et al, in a 2010 paper, “The ‘Blurring’ of Special Education in a New Continuum of General Education Placements and Services,” provides a useful delineation into two camps they term IDEA and NCLB. The IDEA group advocates for a top-down (i.e., replicable), linear, and time-sensitive process with fewer tiers of instruction, which serves both prevention and a more valid method of disability identification. They believe in evidence-based programs at Tier 1, the strength of standard protocols in Tier 2 and Experimental Teaching for Tier 3 intervention. They believe in the importance of a distinct special education program.

On the other hand, the NCLB group focuses on a problem-solving approach based on standards. “Whereas special education remained a distinct entity in reform making in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the NCLB camp today are advocating for obscuring, smearing, dimming, and confusing special education by blurring it into general education. In their plans—however implicit—special education vanishes in all but name (and maybe in name as well).”

Research suggests that the standard-protocol approach is superior to problem solving in accelerating the progress of children with serious learning problems. However, the authors acknowledge that “because there are insufficient numbers of such protocols in many academic areas and in the higher grades, and because ‘the school bus arrives every morning,’ many practitioners may have little choice but to rely on some variant of problem solving.”

In a more recent paper in 2015, “Inclusion Versus Specialized Intervention for Very-Low-Performing Students: What Does Access Mean in an Era of Academic Challenge?“, Fuchs and other authors again examine the split between those who push for a problem-solving, inclusionary approach vs. that of “specialized intervention” approach and advocate for a focus on explicit, specialized intervention delivered in a separate setting.

Here’s a couple of provocative quotes from this paper that struck me:

“. . . access cannot be assumed even when inclusive instruction reflects state of-the-art accommodations and support. Instead, only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished. In fact, the present analysis indicates that such access is sometimes more satisfactorily achieved under a service delivery arrangement that occurs outside the physical space of the inclusive program and using instructional methods that differ from the inclusive program. All this argues for a definition of access to the general educational curriculum that is based on empirical evidence of adequate learning— regardless of the setting in which or the instructional methods by which that learning is achieved.”

“…it is not possible to ignore students’ foundational skill deficits if progress toward CCSS is to be realized. For example, to demonstrate meaningful improvement with informational text, specialized intervention must address very low performers’ decoding, word recognition, and vocabulary deficits, and this often requires out-of-level foundational skills instruction. Therefore, although reconceptualizing access as empirical demonstration of learning, schools must also recognize that the access mandate often requires schools to provide out-of-level instruction to meet students’ needs for accessing the grade-level curriculum.”

Yet I don’t agree with the authors that putting in place explicit instructional intervention programs will solve all the problems they’ve identified with inclusionary practices. You can place my own professional stance as firmly within the “NCLB” camp outlined above. Schools are not clinics, and unfortunately, special education teachers and other personnel in school buildings are rarely, if ever, trained in the delivery of specific interventions.

In fact, I think the issue of either strong inclusionary instruction or specialized intervention comes down to the same fundamental issue: there is a general lack of instructional capacity and expertise in most schools, in addition to a general lack of curricular coherence and vision.

Either way, we certainly need to rethink how we are putting in place supports for students who struggle the most and assessing whether those supports are actually effective.

My argument, however, is to place our primary and immediate focus on establishing coherent and rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students. I thus argue for inclusion and a problem-solving approach.

A recent article in Education Next,”Reforming Remediation” neatly encapsulates the rationale for this inclusionary argument. Students placed directly in college-level statistics did far better than their counterparts in remedial classes.

While that example is focused on a higher education setting, we can find parallels in K-12 by looking at access to Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or to difficult academic subjects such as Latin. Disadvantaged students rarely have the opportunity to experience such rigorous curriculum. Yet when they do, as Bronx Latin teacher Peter Dodington put it, “The combination of a difficult topic and a well-ordered, step-by-step curriculum allows even otherwise weak students to succeed, and gives them a new understanding of their own strengths and talents.”

If we raise our expectations and the rigor and coherency of our curriculum, then we will see more educational benefit for all students. The dire reality of poor teacher training and knowledge of the content they teach is a significant problem, but a stronger school-wide curricular program can help to assuage this.

I strongly believe in the need for specialized interventions for students who require the most support. But how can we put in place effective interventions when a strong and well-implemented core curriculum is not present?

Let’s address the foundations first before moving to the clouds.

A Good Question for a Teacher to Ask

“Enjoying space.” by simon73 is licensed under CC BY 3.0

“When teaching the course, I always imagined that one of my students would someday be US president. I would pause before entering the lecture room and ask myself, ‘Twenty years from now, when one of these students is the most powerful person on Earth, what will I regret not having taught? How will I consider today’s lecture a failure?’ Then I would think of the day’s message and make sure it was well understood by all.”

–Physicist Richard Muller, in an interview in Physics Today

Smorgasbord: Albany, Policy, and Diversity

I went up to Albany on Tuesday with other America Achieves NY Policy Fellows and we spoke with assembly members and senators and were welcomed and introduced by Assemblymember Patricia Fahy on the assembly floor. If you’ve been wondering whether educators should really be involved in policy, I can’t think of a clearer example of the “win-win” when educators point to a clear problem and a clear solution, and they obtain bipartisan support now being written into state regulations.

Principal Elissa Smith (from upstate New York) and special education teacher Jennifer Chernis (from downstate) identified a significant problem in the field that policymakers were not aware of: certified teachers working as teacher assistants couldn’t maintain or advance their state teacher certification. Their solution? Just add the addendum they suggested to the regulations! This was such a clear fix and win for legislators and for educators that they swiftly earned support from both Republican and Democratic representatives and their proposed addendum is moving forward into law. This will benefit a significant number of teacher assistants across the entire state of NY.

This is what can happen when you empower and equip educators to bring policy solutions to problems in the field. If you’re a NY educator interested in being a part of this, you can apply here. Here’s the other viable policy problems and solutions proposed by fellows:

In other news:

There is clear evidence that integration works. NY Times: (Also review the evidence in my policy paper above.)

Yet the track record of Betsy Devos, the barely confirmed and heavily contested new Secretary of ED, does not bode well for efforts to increase diversity in schools. CNN:

Furthermore, Devos’s inevitable focus on school choice will do little for rural schools—the very constituency that has swept Trump and his Republican cohort into office. USA Today:

Diversity is increasing in rural areas, not only in cities. If California is any indicator, there will be negative bluster around this diversity, but an eventual swing back to acceptance. While there are clear difficulties around an increase in diversity in any community, there is also a clear opportunity for starting by increasing exposure to a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds in our public schools. NY Times:

An important reminder that smart federal policy can have positive effects on education. The 74:

And a reminder that education is important to long-term outcomes. “Educated people are generally healthier, have fewer comorbidities and live longer than people with less education.” BioRxiv:

Some high schools are breaking out of the traditional school setting. Ozy:

Teenagers who vandalized a historic black schoolhouse were ordered by a judge to educate themselves by reading some real literature. If only they had already been reading these books in school. . . NY Times:

One researcher claims that there is little validity to Bloom’s taxonomy, the ubiquitous source of ranking “higher-order” questions and tasks. “The only distinction that is supported by research is the distinction
between declarative/conceptual knowledge (which enables recall,
comprehension or understanding), and procedural knowledge (which enables
application or task performance).” I, for one, would be more than happy to see these waste-of-time ranking taxonomies go the way of the Dodo. Teachers’ time will be much better spent actually developing educational tasks and resources.

And here’s fish singing “in the coastal waters off Port Headland in Western Australia.” New Scientist:



Smorgasbord: It’s Been A While


I know, I’ve mostly stopped posting. A conflux of being-really-busy at work, getting-really-sick (turns out I’m allergic to a certain type of antibiotic), and being-overwhelmed-with-information (I get way too many newsletters) and needing to just kind of hit the pause button on everything. And winter.

I guess there’s some kind of game going on, but I’m not a football person, so I’m posting this instead. So here you go:


A Pigeon Tale and a Growth Mindset

“I asked Cher what had made her think that the Pigeon story could be a kids’ book. She paused, then said, of her work at the time, ‘There were two classrooms, the same size, the same kinds of kids in terms of age, background. Every day with their lunch, the children got a cookie that came in a cellophane wrapper. In one of the classrooms, the teacher would come around with scissors and snip the cellophane off each cookie wrapper. In the other classroom, the teacher said, ‘Absolutely do not touch those wrappers, do not help the children open them. These kids are motivated, they can open these cookies themselves.’ Sometimes there was a lot of struggle. The cookies might be pulverized by the time they were opened. But they were opened, each one of them. I knew kids could desire, fail, be angry, thrive. I knew that this was territory that made sense for them. Those Pigeon emotions made sense to them—that told me something.’ ”

—Rivka Galchen, “Fail Funnier” on children’s book author Mo Willems in The New Yorker

A Writing Method That Deepens Knowledge: The Hochman Method


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 coherently 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.

For an example of one of Hochman’s sentence-level activities (Because, But, So), check out Doug Lemov’s post, Hochman’s ‘But, Because, So’ Sentence Expansion Activity. He also highlights Hochman’s distinction between editing and revision here.

Have you used or seen the Hochman method? Do share.

Low floor, high ceiling, wide walls in ELA classrooms

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.

By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0


Mitchel Resnick, another professor at MIT, added the useful concept of “wide walls” to the design metaphor of a room:


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?

Resnick offers some further advice for designers in an MIT paper, “Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids” (bearing in mind this is for construction kits, not for academic content):

  • Design for Designers
  • Low Floor and Wide Walls
  • Make Powerful Ideas Salient – Not Forced
  • Support Many Paths, Many Styles
  • 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.

Experience is Relational and Subjective

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)

–Robert Epstein, “The Empty Brain” on Aeon

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.