Smorgasbord: Complexity, Reading, Morals, and Algorithms

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Stop wasting your time on item-analysis of standards and skills on state ELA tests, people

Tim Shanahan has some advice and candor that many principals and district leaders sorely need to hear.

“What makes the difference in reading performance isn’t practice answering certain question types, but practice in interpreting texts that are challenging–that pose barriers to meaning.

. . . The point isn’t that the standards should be ignored, but that teachers have to understand that reading comprehension tests do not/cannot measure single, separable, independent skills. These instruments provide nothing more than an overall indicator of general reading comprehension performance.”

This is the annual rigmarole that schools waste their ELA teachers’ time with at the beginning of each school year.

Stop it, folks. Just stop it. You’re not going to glean new insight about how to effectively teach literacy to your kids by doing intensive item analysis of the standards and questions on the ELA state test.

Instead, read real literature and engage your kids in learning about their world. Then you might actually have an impact.

A Spirited Reaction to One District’s Approach to Standards-Based Reading Instruction, Shanahan on Literacy

Teach morals by human example, not using cute animals

“Books that children can easily relate to increase their ability to apply the story’s lesson to their daily lives.”

But the study also notes that “The more a child attributed human characteristics to the anthropomorphic animals, the more they shared after reading the animal book.”

So as always, it’s about how the adults reading the books with children help them pay attention to and understand what’s most important.

Human Characters, Not Animals, Teach Children Best Moral Lessons, Neuroscience News

If laptops are detrimental to learning in college classrooms, then . . .

“We find that allowing any computer usage in the classroom—even with strict limitations—reduces students’ average final-exam performance by roughly one-fifth of a standard deviation.”

Should professors ban laptops?, Education Next

Bellwether reviewed NY’s ESSA plans and provides a useful critique.

NY has a strong foundation, but it’s accountability measures may be too complex for parents and the public to make sense of, as well as too vague.

An Independent Review of New York’s Draft ESSA Plan, Bellwether Education

A Friendly Reminder: Schools are Complex

“At least on paper, it is difficult to tell what separates the schools at the bottom of the list from those at the top, which cuts to the core of what makes school turnaround so difficult: nobody knows precisely what works.

‘The problem is that there is no silver bullet to turnaround interventions,’ said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a distinguished research professor at Columbia University’s Teacher College. ‘It’s a really tough thing to figure out what makes the difference in schools.’”

For $582 Million Spent on Troubled Schools, Some Gains, More Disappointments, NY Times

And school closures? Also complex

Make sure to read behind the headlines on the new CREDO study. There’s a lot of unknowns and nuance to their findings.

Matt Barnum does a nice job of drawing those out in this Chalkbeat piece.

“…the study can’t explain why closures happen more often in certain communities. For instance, if low-achieving schools with many white students are especially likely to be located in rural areas where there are fewer alternative schools, that may help explain the results.

Another explanation could be that the expansion of charter schools in high-minority areas puts additional fiscal and enrollment pressure on districts and charters — as charters expand, other schools may close as their enrollment declines.

What is clear, though, is that black and low-income students and communities are especially likely to have a school closed.”

Schools with more students of color are more likely to be shut down — and three other things to know about a big new study, Chalkbeat

A NY City Council bill could make public the algorithms that affect the public

An innovative–and some would say, long overdue, bill has been introduced in the City Council by Bronx Councilmember Vacca.

This would make the algorithm that the city uses to sort students for high school would be made transparent.

Showing the Algorithms Behind New York City Services, NY Times


A “historic” literacy effort in Napa Valley may be less about iPads and “engagement” and more about carefully sequenced, structured learning

the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.

“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”

But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.

So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.

A Historic Literacy Effort in California Brings Personalized Learning to English Language Learners, the74

On Threshold Concepts and Experiences


In a recent post, “On Knowledge and Curriculum,” we reviewed a few disruptive ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, with the most incendiary implication being:

a school needs to come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain and carefully sequence and reinforce those concepts across classrooms and grades.

So how can a school embark upon this quest? In this post, I will attempt to provide some guiding ideas and protocols for this work.

How Do We Reinforce Knowledge?

First off, a few guiding documents to equip you with the cognitive principles of affirmative testing, which are essential to reinforcing knowledge over time:

—Annie Murphy Paul, “Affirmative Testing” (she has designed an entire e-course around these concepts!)

—Deans for Impact, “The Science of Learning


How Do We Determine the Knowledge that is ESSENTIAL?

Folks are going to disagree about this, including the “experts,” so ultimately, this determination should be made collaboratively within a school (and beyond). The key is that the school comes to a consensus on this essential knowledge, then teachers carefully sequence it across the curriculum and quiz it repeatedly in a low stakes manner.

There’s a useful frame, known as threshold concepts, for drilling down to this “essential knowledge” within a specific academic domain. Threshold concepts come out of higher ed academia, and it’s admittedly a bit esoteric in the literature, but I think it’s a useful lens with practical implications. Threshold concepts are very much related to Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas,” but with a few interesting twists.

I first stumbled over the threshold of these concepts in blogs from UK educators, to whom I’m indebted for starting me on this journey:

—Alex Quigley, “Designing a New Curriculum: What are your ‘Big Ideas?’

—Joe Kirby, “One scientific insight for curriculum design” (he also sums up research on affirmative testing really well here)

What we’re really trying to get here is that 20% of the knowledge that is most essential to understanding an academic domain in a specific grade. Here’s a frame for this:


How can threshold concepts help us to determine that 20% of essential knowledge within a specific academic domain? I decided to review some of the literature for further clues:

—Ray Land, Jan Meyer, and Jan Smith,”Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines” (Land and Meyer are the rockstars who originated the concept)


—James Rhem, “Before and after students “get it”: threshold concepts” (a useful overview)

This idea of a transformation of understanding that is essential for progressing deeper into the academic content is really interesting.


—James Atherton, “How do people ‘get it’?” (another useful overview)

There are many other characteristics that were identified, but they don’t all seem very useful in a practical sense for K-12. I think the three outlined above are the most relevant and applicable.

—Tracy Fortune, Priscilla Ennals, and Mary Kennedy-Jones, “The Hero’s Journey: Uncovering Threshold Barriers, Dispositions, and Practices Among Occupational Therapy Students


I love this idea of viewing a student’s passage through a threshold concept as akin to a hero’s journey. In considering this journey, what are the troublesome obstacles and bottlenecks that student will face? The idea of “bottlenecks” comes thanks for the link immediately below. In thinking through this, I also think we need to acknowledge that bottlenecks may not be purely conceptual — they can also be procedural, in the form of skills required to complete academic tasks, as well as social-emotional (this can be a tremendous and often unaddressed barrier for many kids).

In this sense, then, we can expand the notion of crossing a threshold to not solely refer to concepts, but furthermore experiences. As educators, we seek to design experiences in which students engage in an academic form of a hero’s journey, learning to overcome barriers and gain the intellectual accomplishment of mastering skills and knowledge.

—Joan Middendorf & David Pace, “Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking” (they offer a useful protocol that I’ve drawn from below)

OK, So How Do We Discover These Threshold Concepts and Experiences?

But we still need some kind of process for distilling away all the cruft and getting down that 20% of the most essential knowledge within a content and grade.

Here in the US, we have a general list of skills we use as guidance in the form of state standards. And as I’ve done with the Common Core standards, we can do a deeper analysis to begin unpacking what that knowledge might be.

But this can still be at a pretty abstract level, and we want this to be relevant to classroom teaching. By focusing on the topics and texts that will be studied, we can make this more concrete.

Because English Language Arts is my specific area of expertise, I’ve focused my efforts in this area, especially since this content area is probably the most difficult to pin down in terms of a progression of knowledge.


There’s two ways we could utilize this protocol: 1) unit of study, or 2) over the entire school year.

1) Consider the topics and/or texts that will be taught.

2) What will be the product or products that students will be expected to create that can demonstrate their mastery of learning? (This product could also be a performance).

3) What are the primary modalities that this product is focused upon? In literacy, of course we’re focused on all modalities, but it helps for a department to focus upon the one they consider most essential.

4) Now consider the standards that your district adheres to. For the Common Core, they are helpfully broken up by modality, so turn to that modality. Then, narrow down which specific, few standards you will primarily be targeting.

5) What are the bottlenecks, most especially those that are conceptual and specific to this content, that students will encounter?

6) Evaluate the list of items you have generated. Do they fit the criteria of a threshold concept or experience? Are they transformative, integrative, and troublesome? If not, they may not be essential.

7) You don’t have to do this, but I find that at this step it can be useful to phrase the threshold concept in the form of a message or lesson, akin to a theme statement.

For example, for an upcoming professional learning session I’m working on about supporting struggling middle school readers, I’ve identified the following threshold concepts:

  • Students that struggle with reading comprehension also often struggle with a lack of academic and world knowledge. An English Language Learner can also be understood as native English speakers that do not understand the language of math, science, social studies – i.e. academic, formal, domain specific language.
  • A teacher must work through a task/text in order to identify key takeaways, key vocabulary, and potential barriers to learning, regardless of whether a curriculum is provided.
  • All learners can be engaged in reading and comprehending complex academic texts through well-designed activities, tasks, and resources.
  • An environment in which a student feels safe to take risks in front of peers is a prerequisite for learning — most especially for struggling readers.
  • Learners should be explicitly equipped with strategies and mindsets for when they encounter challenging vocabulary on their own.

It’s important to note that threshold concepts will vary completely depending on any teacher’s specific set of knowledge, perspectives, and interest, and I think that’s OK. What’s most important is that once these most essential concepts and experiences have been identified and voiced, they will not only help to focus that teacher’s instruction on what they feel is most important, they will serve as a basis for arriving at a consensus as a department and as a school.

Here’s a few really basic examples at a unit level of study:

Now that threshold concepts and experiences have been identified, here’s the really hard part:


This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is so very contrary and disruptive to the norms of public education.


I hope some of these resources in this post are useful to your work. The slides outlined above and the protocol are accessible and downloadable here: