A College Professor Teaches History in High School

Not a “man bites dog” media story for sure, but university professors who willingly choose to teach at a high school for a semester or a year, well, that does cause a few heads to turn. Previous posts I have published (see here for a math professor and here for an education professor) raise similar issues to what this history professor learned by teaching for a semester at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh (PA).

I have now been at Allderdice for five months, long enough to see sharp differences between high school and university teaching situations. From the very beginning the sharpest contrast has been in the physical environment and pace. Allderdice crowds into one building 3,200 students while [my university] has about 1,400 spread over 80 acres. The only room available at Allderdice for quiet study is a chemistry storeroom. At [my university] I share an
offiice the size of the men teachers’ room at Allderdice, with one colleague.

Moreover, nothing is leisurely at Allderdice. Clerical chores, opening exercises, and hurried conferences with students and colleagues crowd the hour between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. The five-minute break between classes is far too short to reinvigorate a teacher. Lunch half-hour is a race upstairs in the midst of a throng of students, a contest for a place at the head of the line, a few minutes respite in a crowded cafeteria where masses of students sit within eyesight, and
another dash to oPen the classroom before chaos erupts in the hallway.

Since January, I have been teaching six classes a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in order to be free to teach and observe at other schools on Tuesday and Thursday while my three Allderdice colleagues take my classes. By seventh Period on these crowded days, I teach poorly,
my energy dissipated, and my nerves worn thin. How my colleagues stand a similar pace year after year I do not understand.

My schedule-and the schedule of regular high school teachers-gives me far too little time to see students individually. Sixth period is usually crowded with appointments l can never talk to students over coffee, a happy pursuit which probably occupies far too much of my time at [the university]. Like many of my colleagues at Allderdice, I am unable to give students the individual attention they deserve, except by writing lengthy comments on their essay examinations
and other papers. When will citizens and school boards give teachers time to teach properly ?

If it were not for the excitement of the AP program, the constant stimulation from five colleagues who are teaching AP history in three high schools, and the sharp analytical minds of the 160 students I see one to three times a week, there would be very little intellectual stimulation in my high school job. Except during hectic lunch periods, there is no time to chat with colleagues from other departments.

Historians at [my university] will be surprised to learn that I miss department meetings where we frequently become involved in long discussions I find a half-hour to write and do research only late at night after-pdraeyp,a rations are ready for the next and I miss conversation with
colleagues who are carrying on similar research. High school, therefore, seems much less the free market place in ideas I had come to know at [my university], and opportunities for creative growth and development are not as great, except as one grows as a teacher.

Nor are teachers in high school accorded the considerations as professional people which we know in universities. They are required to be clerks, truant officers, and policemen. Books are chosen for them, and courses of studv are usually  Planned by others, although, of course, every teacher has numerous opportunities to develop original methods of presentation if he wishes to do so.

Frequent interruptions disrupt one class after another. Fire drills, air raid alerts, messages from the office, telephone calls, students distributing
bulletins, early dismissals-there seems no limit io the imaginations of people who disturb teachers. I can remember no occasion in the last five years when anyone has interrupted one of my classes at [the university]. Perhaps these conditions account largely for a significant difference in attitude which I find on the part of a larger percentage of my high school than of my college colleagues. Most of them admit to doing minimal work and to approaching teaching as a job rather than as a cteative intellectual experience. I do not believe that pay differentials account for this attitude….
Far more important, it seems to me, is the fact that high school teachers are unable because of their heavy teaching loads and the burden of their other tasks to do an esthetically satisfying job, except at great personal sacrifice. Many become discouraged, particularly if they are of less than average capability. But despite many handicaps, my high school colleagues are far better at some jobs than college professors.

High school teachers pay far more attention to their students as developing human beings than we do in the universities. One teacher after another has been able to supply me with details about a student’s personal problems and family background which have been most helpful. The counselors, principal, and vice principal, at least at Allderdice, seem to know every child in the school personally and to help them over innumerable hurdles. In coilege, we are more likely to let a student sink or swim unless he is in really serious trouble. Finally, high school instructors teach current events with great skill, while we tend to ignore them in the classroom.

My students at Allderdice are more fun to teach than their counterparts at [university].  Of course, I have only very able history students at Allderdice while many of our mathematical wizards [in the university] have somewhat more limited verbal skills. Ability differences, however, are not the heart of the matter. The more significant difference is that most of my high school students are hungry for intellectual stimulation. They are anxious to examine historical issues in the light of evidence, and they respond eagerly when challenged with a knotty problem of historical interpretation. Moreover, they seem more willing to express personal opinions and to put their opinions to the test of evidence than many college students. The false sophistication which marks many college freshmen and sophomores seems entirely-and happily-absent.

I have also been impressed by the relative intellectual sophistication of high school students. The 60 I know best at Ailderdice are remarkably well read and constantly make reference to leisure reading during class  discussions. They assimilate new ideas with great speed and often have remarkable insights into historical personalities. We are not tapping the potential abilities which lie dormant in many of our high school students. We cannot tap them fully, except in special instances where teachers have the privileges which we enjoy in the AP program, until society makes teaching a true profession offering opportunities to do an esthetically and intellectually satisfying job.

I shall be forever grateful to [my university], the Pittsburgh public schools, The Ford and Mellon Foundations, and my colleagues and the students at
Allderdice for making this year possible. I shall never again teach as poorly as I did before this exciting experience in the public schools. I shall never agaln be as free with my criticisms of public school teachers and courses of study. Nor shall I ever again accepl the argument that little can be done. Endless opportunities for improving course offerings and methods of teaching present themselves daily. I hope to continue to explore these opportunities with my new friends on high school faculties-that is if I survive until June 23!

Ted Fenton taught the first Advanced Placement history courses offered to Allderdice students in 1959-1960. He published this article in the Pennsylvania School Journal (May 1960). He was then at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) and taught for one semester. Within a few years, he and other academics passionate about improving high school social studies launched a movement then called the “New Social Studies” following on the heels of the New Math, New Biology, New Physics, etc.

What struck me about the article published in 1960 is Fenton’s  comparisons of university and high school teaching loads, working conditions, and climate of learning that existed in both places then. More than a half-century later, what Fenton wrote describes accurately, in my opinion, what occurs in many high schools today.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Building Better Teachers—-Mastering the craft demands time to collaborate—just what American schools don’t provide (Sara Mosle)

Sara Mosle, who teaches writing at Philip’s Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., has written about education for The New York Times, Slate, and other publications. This appeared Aug 13 2014 at:  Atlantic Online

 

Teaching dwarfs every other profession that requires a college degree. Nationwide, 3.7 million schoolteachers serve grades K–12—more than all the doctors, lawyers, and engineers in the country combined. Teacher shortages, once chronic, abated during the recession, when layoffs were widespread, but will soon return with a vengeance. Fully half of all teachers are Baby Boomers on the brink of retirement. Among novice teachers, who constitute an increasingly large proportion of the remaining workforce, between 40 and 50 percent typically quit within just five years, citing job dissatisfaction or more-alluring prospects. Given this drain at both ends of the teaching pipeline, schools will likely need to hire more than 3 million new teachers by 2020. That is an enormous talent hole to fill.

Yet the United States has, if anything, too many teacher-training programs. Each year, some 1,400 of them indiscriminately churn out twice as many graduates as schools can use. Program quality varies widely, so many would-be teachers don’t suit schools’ needs. In a scathing 2006 report, Arthur Levine, a former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, accused many education schools of being little more than a “cash cow” for their hosting institution. Among the problems he highlighted were exceedingly “low admission standards,” a “curriculum in disarray,” and faculties “disconnected” from the realities of the classroom.

Once hired, many teachers are left to sink or swim. In recent years, several states have adopted controversial accountability measures, known as “value added” metrics, with a view toward winnowing out poor performers who haven’t produced student improvement on standardized tests; helping teachers hone their craft has seldom made it onto the agenda. But perhaps we’re finally ready to focus attention on the far bigger and more important question of how to attract and retain the top teachers we want.

This spring, the Obama administration announced plans to begin rating teacher-training programs. Consensus on what makes an effective teacher, however, remains elusive. Student achievement does not correlate strongly with teachers’ years of experience in the classroom (beyond the initial few) or with the caliber of their preparation—whether they have acquired certification, earned a master’s degree in education, or aced state licensing exams. Even particular personality traits, such as an extroverted willingness to ham it up in the classroom, appear irrelevant. The conundrum doesn’t daunt Elizabeth Green, a co-founder of GothamSchools (a news Web site originally devoted to covering New York City schools that has recently expanded to other cities and been rechristened Chalkbeat). Her book, Building a Better Teacher, couldn’t be better timed.

At the heart of Green’s exploration is a powerfully simple idea: that teaching is not some mystical talent but a set of best practices that can be codified and learned through extensive hands-on coaching, self-scrutiny, and collaboration. Yet her account suggests that implementing this vision may entail a bigger transformation than she quite realizes.

Green begins by profiling an array of educators who have been inspired by Deborah Ball, now the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. In the early 1980s, she was a charismatic math teacher in East Lansing, Michigan, who developed a successful approach to teaching even very young children sophisticated concepts in math. Instead of relying on rote memorization or repetitive skills practice, Ball shepherded children through in-depth discussions of a single mathematical conjecture—for example, do two odd integers always add up to an even number? The students, steered along by their teacher, deliberated together to derive proofs for their various hypotheses. Some of the most exhilarating parts of Green’s book are the detailed descriptions of precisely how, and why, these lessons succeed. Ball helped other teachers adopt her techniques not through the usual education-school lectures, but through rigorous apprenticeship: mutual observation of lessons, followed by intensive dissection of what worked and what didn’t.

Green likens the approach to the Japanese practice of jugyokenkyu. “Lesson study” is the main form of teacher training in Japan, where colleagues routinely sit in on one another’s classes and then scrutinize a single session for hours, extracting general guidance for future instruction. Japan substantially outperforms America in math on international tests, and Green clearly believes jugyokenkyu is a crucial factor in the country’s success. She recounts how some of Ball’s ideas were adopted by the state of California in the mid-1980s but never had a chance to catch on: Teachers were expected to absorb the new policies, outlined in a state “manifesto,” and then revamp lesson plans on their own, with little or no training or ongoing support. Some educators didn’t even see the guidelines—all but ensuring the reforms would fail. The rollout of the Common Core State Standards appears to be replicating this dispiriting pattern in many places.

At first, Green decides that Teach for America and some charter-school leaders are now following in Ball’s and Japan’s footsteps—albeit with plenty of stumbling. She focuses on Doug Lemov, an entrepreneurial-minded educator who started a charter school in Boston in the mid-1990s and later became a managing director and teacher trainer with the Uncommon Schools charter network. As part of his job, he began compiling an inventory of effective teaching techniques. The taxonomy became a book, Teach Like a Champion, and a cause célèbre within the charter movement; videos of sample lessons circulated like samizdat literature. There’s technique No. 2, “Right Is Right”: teachers refuse to accept students’ half-baked responses to questions and insist on well-formulated, and eventually correct, replies. Technique No. 32 is “SLANT,” which stands for “Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head, and Track the speaker,” a formula for eliciting attention from students. But the motions of following a lesson, Green soon discovers, aren’t necessarily a sign of genuine engagement.

The taxonomy includes plenty of useful, even commonsense, advice. Yet Green reveals how, in practice, Lemov’s early acolytes in the charter world became obsessed with a disciplinary approach that dictated no talking in hallways, silent lunches, and skyrocketing suspensions for even minor infractions. What at first appeared to be a huge success—Lemov’s school initially posted impressive test scores—turns out to be a more complicated story. Green finds that out of some 55 students who started at the school in seventh grade, only 11 made it to their senior year, an astounding rate of attrition. A later class began with 100 sixth-grade students and was winnowed to 30 by graduation.

Japanese “lesson study,” she observes, was premised on the notion that “children needed structured opportunities to talk in order to learn.” Lemov banked on a rather different principle: that “learning first required the foundational ability to be quiet and listen.” As Green concludes, Lemov had built a vocabulary that Deborah Ball might admire for describing precisely what teachers should do in the classroom, but applied it to “a sort of teaching that she didnt do.” Green ends up saluting Ball and Japan for getting the balance between classroom discipline and student engagement right.

But Green’s account cries out for a look at the bigger picture. She is absolutely correct about the importance of self-critical reflection and collaboration. What she is not the first, or I’m sure the last, to miss are the structural obstacles to importing such an apprentice-style ethos into American teachers’ experience. As it happens, an administrator introduced lesson study as part of the staff’s professional development at a school where I’ve worked. There was just one problem: we teachers—juggling tutoring before and after school, supervising clubs, or coaching sports—had only one period a week to meet as a group. It would be generous to say lesson study didn’t work; it never got off the ground. There typically isn’t time in American teachers’ workdays for this kind of collaborative enterprise.

That lack of time is an American anomaly, and it is key. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been overseeing tests of 15-year-olds every three years among its members. The PISA exams, as they’re called, show that American students’ performance is barely above average in reading and trails substantially in math. The tests also record other information about classroom instruction around the world, and American researchers, policy makers, and pundits have pored over the results for clues to improving our schools. For example, the United States falls roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to class size. Countries with far larger classes than we have, such as South Korea, outperform us. So do countries, like Finland, with smaller ones. Not surprisingly, some reformers have concluded that reduced class size isn’t the secret to student success.

But class size is a crude measure of a more important, encompassing concept that is worth attending to: teacher workload. How much time do teachers spend on classroom instruction, and how much time do they have outside of class to devote to the other considerable, less visible aspects of the job: lesson planning, paper grading, conferring with students, calling parents, meeting with colleagues to discuss methods and goals. Here, the PISA results are not ambiguous. Every single country that outperforms us has significantly smaller teacher workloads. Indeed, on the scale of time devoted by teachers to in-class instruction annually, the United States is off the charts. We spend far more hours in the classroom on average, twice and nearly three times more in some cases, than teachers in any other OECD country save Chile. Finnish high-school teachers, for example, clock 553 hours in the classroom each year. In Japan, home of jugyokenkyu, that number is 500. In the U.S., it’s 1,051. (Figures for elementary and middle school show roughly the same skew.)

In practice, this means that most teachers in this country have zero time to work together on new pedagogical approaches and share feedback in the way Green advocates in her book. They rarely have an opportunity to watch other teachers teach, the single best kind of training, in my experience; they’re too busy in their own classrooms (not to mention outside them).

A big problem with American education, in other words, is how we conceive of the job. Green is right: there’s much about teaching that isn’t instinctive, and as her book usefully shows, learning how to perfect the art is demanding. It is high time to correct a common misimpression: teaching isn’t the relatively leisurely occupation many people imagine, enviously invoking a nine-to-three school day and long summer vacations, which in reality seldom exist. We think of no other white-collar profession in terms of a single dimension of job performance. We don’t, for example, regard lawyers as “working” only during the hours they’re actually presenting a case before a judge; we recognize the amount of preparation and subsequent review that goes into such moments. If teaching is such a plum post, we might ask ourselves why attrition rates are so high.

In closing, Green decides to teach a lesson herself and is thrilled to find that it goes well, thanks to so many of the techniques she learned in her reporting—and, it’s worth noting, thanks to plenty of planning. She recounts spending hours getting ready for this one lesson, selecting readings, conferring with a seasoned teacher, and rehearsing how she would present the material to the class. All this, and she wasn’t grading a single paper or speaking to parents or meeting individually with students. Such work constitutes a large portion of what teachers do each day. It’s why the job, done right, is so hard and burns teachers out so fast.

The goal isn’t to lighten teachers’ load but to redistribute it. At one point, Deborah Ball remarks that what she loves about teaching is that it is so hard—by which she means intellectually challenging and rewarding. Teaching is all-consuming, and that absorption is part of the joy of the job. But if teaching is to be a profession of the mind (as well as of the heart) that retains top talent and delivers results on the same level that other countries boast, the people who spend hours with our children in the classroom also need what they currently don’t get: the hours with peers and mentors that are essential to improving their craft.

 

 

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School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct

School reformers now (and in the past) are (and have been) divided among themselves. So often, they seek similar goals–students who are literate, can think clearly, have requisite skills and knowledge to enter and finish college or start a career,  and  contribute to the larger community– but split over which of the goals should have precedence and how to achieve the ones they prize.

 

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Reformers fighting among themselves, of course, is hardly new.  For generations, traditionalists have fought progressives over the purposes of schooling, what content and skills had to be taught, how teachers should teach, and how students should learn. Whether it was the 1890s, 1960s, or the 1980s, ruptures between school reformers occurred again and again (see here, here, and here). And so it is today over how best to educate poor white and minority children, whether Common Core state standards are a boon or bane, and do charter schools help or hinder children and youth.

Yet whether school reforms come from the political right, center, or left championing  particular changes often leads the most well-intentioned of reformers to commit mistakes again and again. It is those repeated mistakes, generation after generation, that have been so obvious to historians, lay observers, and critics that I turn to now.

Charles Payne included in his book, So Much Reform, So Little Change, a “School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct.” He did so because he and other researchers ( I include myself), have had direct experience with each item in the Pledge. This device of a constructed Pledge seeks to alert wannabe reformers and active policymakers who authorize changes to think first, consider what else has been done, and not repeat the errors of the past:

Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct

I will not overpromise.

I will not disrespect teachers.

I will not do anything behind the principal’s back.

I will not take part in any partisan or personal feuds.

I will not equate disagreement with “resistance.”

I will not put down other programs.

I will not expect change overnight.

I will take time to study the history of reforms similar to mine.

I will not try to scale up prematurely.

If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what field workers tell me.

I will give school people realistic estimates of how much time and money it takes to implement my program.

U.S. and international readers who have either participated in reforms or been the target of planned changes will nod their heads in agreement with one or more of these statements. Each reader may have his or her favorite part of the Pledge backed-up with a story to illustrate the folly reform-driven policymakers engage in when they plow ahead in mandating classroom changes.

While I agree with each item of the Pledge (and can offer additions as well), a few favorites are:

I will not disrespect teachers.

I will take time to study the history of reforms similar to mine.

If I am not in the field myself, I will take seriously what field workers tell me.

Much of my professional life has been devoted to teaching, writing, and researching  how policies get translated (or not) into classroom practice. And the inventory of errors and miscalculations that policymakers have made in formulating, adopting, and putting into practice the reform du jour.

If anything, I have focused a great deal on the importance of teacher involvement in making and implementing policy. David Tyack and I have written in Tinkering toward Utopia (pp. 134-142) about the crucial importance of teachers being seriously involved in thinking through and adapting school and classroom reforms directed at classroom teaching. We have argued that policymakers, past and present, too often have ignored what teachers think and do and have used a top-down, outside-in strategy to improve teaching and learning. Tyack and I have advocated an inside-out strategy to school reform–be it Common Core standards, buying and deploying new technologies, or restructuring low performing schools–where policymakers respect and involve teachers while creating the conditions that will help teachers implement desired reforms.

Listening and working with teachers to create and implement changes in classrooms will hardly rid the nation of current struggles between traditionalists and progressives over the degree to which public schools should serve the nation’s economic interests. Those battles, nay, even wars, mirror the deeper conflicts, past and present, over the purposes schools serve in a capitalist-driven democracy. The voices and experiences of teachers have been largely ignored in this recent thirty-year top-down, outside-in effort to make public schools an arm of the economy. To make lasting changes in teaching and learning, reform-driven policymakers have to figure out an inside-out strategy where teachers, the very people who put policy into practice, are working allies, not uninvolved enemies.

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Cartoons about Coding and High Tech for Young Children

As a follow-up to the previous post on coding for kindergartners, I have selected some cartoons about the unceasing and ever-escalating demands of schooling young children and current efforts to use high-tech devices. Cartoonists have a special angle on a topic often missing from how policymakers see the world. And best of all, cartoonists make their points using either a sledge-hammer or an ice pick rather than the tools policymakers use such as words and dollars. Enjoy!

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'I just wanted to thank you for grounding me to my room for the weekend. I took the time to start a computer programming company, which earned me $13 million.'

 

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'We     ... In class today.'

 

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If I learn how to write Roman Numerals, will that help me write computer code?

 

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Tissue Paper Reforms: Coding for Kindergartners

Some school reforms are like rebar that have lasted for more than a century. Examples? The age-graded school and the kindergarten.

Some school reforms are like industrial-strength plastic-covered packages which cover new toys, computer cables and gifts. After the plastic sheath is pried open, it can be recycled and appears later as fabrics, fencing, and benches. Examples?  The New Math, New Science, New Social Studies of the 1960s and 1970s lasting for a decade or so then are recycled years later to reappear later as the New New Math, etc. ,etc.

Some school reforms are like tissue paper that, after one or two uses, shreds and is tossed away. Examples?  Coding for kindergartners.

'We     ... In class today.'

Why is coding for kindergarteners neither rebar nor unbreakable plastic but flimsy tissue paper?

Coding as a Tissue Paper Reform

Teaching young children to code (which may or may not be learning to program) reminds me of how Logo–an earlier tissue paper innovation–became nearly extinct in less than a decade except beyond a few schools where children continued to program using Logo-derived languages. Instructional reforms like Logo then and coding now for young children–to switch metaphors–are like those boutique shops that move in and out of malls.*

Why is coding now, a way of implementing a program language like Logo then, a tissue-paper reform?

The reasons are instructive to current enthusiasts for coding:

1. While the overall national context now clearly favors technological expertise, Big Data, and 21st century skills like programming, the history of Logo showed clearly, that the national context for schools and what was happening inside schools have a lot to do with a reform being put into practice and becoming rebar, plastic, or tissue paper.

Consider the Logo experience. Over forty years ago, Seymour Papert and his MIT team wanted to restore progressive ways of teaching and learning so that students could construct their own meaning of ideas and their experiences. Learning to move “turtles” around on a screen was a way for students to think logically and computationally. These MIT scientists wanted to dismantle institutional barriers that schools had erected over time–the rules, traditions, and culture– because they retarded student learning, especially acquiring thinking skills. Logo, then, would be a vehicle for transforming teacher-centered schools into student-centered, mindful ones.

For Logo activists, however, their timing was bad. The national mood for educational experimentation and equity for poor and minority families was shifting. The idealistic and experimental years in public schools during the mid-1960s to early 1970s had ebbed just as  reformers began piloting Logo05 in a few elementary schools. In just a few years, Logo became a boutique offering because a “back to basics” reform had seized civic and political leaders and the window for new ventures, anchored in the work of Jean Piaget and John Dewey, had closed. Traditional forms of schooling and teaching were back in vogue.

Shortly afterwards, the Nation at Risk report (1983) warned leaders that unless schools became more effective–the U.S. would languish economically and other nations would leapfrog over America to capture global markets.  By the late-1980s, states had raised their graduation standards, created more rigorous curriculum frameworks,. and began testing regimes. Not a welcoming climate for Logo-driven reformers like Papert and his colleagues. In a few years, traditional age-graded schools adapted to the changing national context in both curriculum and instruction.

But now the climate for anything smelling like high-tech, computer science, and new devices has so permeated the culture and the national context for standards, accountability and testing remain firmly entrenched that the idea of coding is one whose time has arrived. Given the history of Logo and how it was implemented suggest to me that coding is tissue-paper thin or at best, recycled plastic.

2. Then and now, schools eager to teach coding, for the most part, catered to mostly middle- and upper-middle class students.  Articles (see here and here) illustrate the demand for family teaching it to children, in- and after-school coding programs, and expensive summer camps (see here and here). Yes, there are efforts by leaders in teaching coding to include low-income students (here  and here) but by and large the primary users are children from middle- and upper middle white and minority families.

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3. Then and now, most teachers were uninvolved in teaching Logo and had little incentive or interest in doing so. Ditto for coding. Sure there are exceptions (see here) but the exception is the one that makes it into the media precisely because it is novel.

4. Then and now, Logo and coding depend upon the principle of transfer of learning coding to conceptual and critical thinking with applications to other domains of knowledge and skills. The research supporting such confidence is lacking among cognitive psychologists and educators who see from daily experience that students find it hard to apply concepts and skills learned in one arena to what is being learned now.

Those reform-minded policymakers and practitioners who believe that the past can be instructive to the present and who are passionate about young school children learning either programming or coding (or both) should take a serious look at Logo and draw both inspiration and lessons from that earlier reform. Chances are, however, the hullabaloo over coding for young children will quiet down and another reform will shred like tissue paper.

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*Please see comment by Kunal Chawla below.

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More Poetry on Teachers and Teaching

Last month I began a feature on poetry about teachers and teaching. Poets who write about teaching are educators, students, and non-educators. Across the globe, they share a common experience of being in classrooms for years. Capturing the feelings, thoughts, and special moments of teaching and studenting in vivid, crisp words and images is the province of poets. Here are some poems that struck me sufficiently to stop and ponder about something I thought I knew so well after decades of teaching and learning.

 

Forty-Seven Minutes*

by Nick Flynn

Years later I’m standing before a roomful of young writers in a high school in Texas. I’ve asked them to locate an image in a poem we’d just read—their heads at this moment are bowed to the page. After some back & forth about the grass & a styrofoam cup, a girl raises her hand & asks, Does it matter? I smile—it is as if the universe balanced on those three words & we’ve landed in the unanswerable. I have to admit that no, it doesn’t, not really, matter, if rain is an image or rain is an idea or rain is a sound in our heads. But, I whisper, leaning in close, to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it does.

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* Thanks to Ann Staley for sending this along

 

 

Mrs. Krikorian
by Sharon Olds
She saved me. When I arrived in 6th grade,
a known criminal, the new teacher
asked me to stay after school the first day, she said
I’ve heard about you. She was a tall woman,
with a deep crevice between her breasts,
and a large, calm nose. She said,
This is a special library pass.
As soon as you finish your hour’s work

that hour’s work that took ten minutes
and then the devil glanced into the room
and found me empty, a house standing open—
you can go to the library. Every hour
I’d zip through the work in a dash and slip out of my
seat as if out of God’s side and sail
down to the library, solo through the empty
powerful halls, flash my pass
and stroll over to the dictionary
to look up the most interesting word
I knew, spank, dipping two fingers
into the jar of library paste to
suck that tart mucilage as I
came to the page with the cocker spaniel’s
silks curling up like the fine steam of the body.
After spank, and breast, I’d move on
to Abe Lincoln and Helen Keller,
safe in their goodness till the bell, thanks
to Mrs. Krikorian, amiable giantess
with the kind eyes. When she asked me to write
a play, and direct it, and it was a flop, and I
hid in the coat-closet, she brought me a candy-cane
as you lay a peppermint on the tongue, and the worm
will come up out of the bowel to get it.
And so I was emptied of Lucifer
and filled with school glue and eros and
Amelia Earhart, saved by Mrs. Krikorian.
And who had saved Mrs. Krikorian?
When the Turks came across Armenia, who
slid her into the belly of a quilt, who
locked her in a chest, who mailed her to America?
And that one, who saved her, and that one—
who saved her, to save the one
who saved Mrs. Krikorian, who was
standing there on the sill of 6th grade, a
wide-hipped angel, smokey hair
standing up weightless all around her head?
I end up owing my soul to so many,
to the Armenian nation, one more soul someone
jammed behind a stove, drove
deep into a crack in a wall,
shoved under a bed. I would wake
up, in the morning, under my bed—not
knowing how I had got there—and lie
in the dusk, the dustballs beside my face
round and ashen, shining slightly
with the eerie comfort of what is neither good nor evil.

 

The Poet Dreams of the Classroom**

by Mary Oliver

I dreamed

I stood up in class

and I said aloud:

Teacher,

why is algebra important?

Sit down, he said.

 

Then I dreamed

I stood up

and I said:

Teacher, I’m weary of turkeys

that we have to draw every fall.

May I draw a fox instead?

Sit down, he said.

 

 

Then I dreamed

I stood up once more and said:

Teacher,

my heart is falling asleep

and it wants to wake up.

It needs to be outside.

Sit down, he said.

______

**Taken from Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner, Teaching with Heart: Poetry That Speaks To the Courage To Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), p. 125.

 

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How to Read Education Data Without Jumping to Conclusions (Jessica Lahey & Tim Lahey)

In an earlier post, I offered fundamental questions that parents, teachers, administrators, researchers, and policymakers could (and yes, should) ask of any policies being considered for improving classroom teaching and student learning.

In this post, a teacher and M.D. offer the basic questions that educators and non-educators should ask of any research study tweeted, blogged about, and appearing in newspapers or on TV programs.

Jessica Lahey is an English, Latin, and writing teacher in Lyme, New Hampshire. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the MiddleTim Lahey, MD, is an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of medicine at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine

This piece appeared on AtlanticOnline, Jul 8 2014

Education has entered the era of Big Data. The Internet is teeming with stories touting the latest groundbreaking studies on the science of learning and pedagogy. Education journalists are in a race to report these findings as they search for the magic formula that will save America’s schools. But while most of this research is methodologically solid, not all of it is ready for immediate deployment in the classroom.

Jessica was reminded of this last week, after she tweeted out an interesting study on math education. Or, rather, she tweeted out what looked like an interesting study on math education, based on an abstract that someone else had tweeted out. Within minutes, dozens of critical response tweets poured in from math educators. She spent the next hour debating the merits of the study with an elementary math specialist, a fourth grade math teacher, and a university professor of math education.

Tracy Zager, the math specialist, and the author of the forthcoming book Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had, emailed her concerns about the indiscriminate use of education studies as gospel:

Public education has always been politicized, but we’ve recently jumped the shark. Catchy articles about education circulate widely, for understandable reason, but I wish education reporters would resist the impulse to over-generalize or sensationalize research findings.

While she conceded that education journalists “can’t be expected to be experts in mathematics education, or science education, or literacy education,” she emphasized that they should be held to a higher standard than the average reader. In order to do their jobs well, they should not only be able to read studies intelligently,“they should also consult sources with field-specific expertise for deeper understanding of the fields.”

After she was schooled on Twitter, Jessica called up Ashley Merryman, the author of Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, and Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. “Just because something is statistically significant does not mean it is meaningfully significant,” Merryman explained. “The big-picture problem with citing the latest research as a quick fix is that education is not an easy ship to turn around.” When journalists cite a press release describing a study without reading and exploring the study’s critical details, they often end up oversimplifying or overstating the results. Their coverage of education research therefore could inspire parents and policymakers to bring half-formed ideas into classroom. Once that happens, said Merryman, “the time, money, and investment that has gone into that change means we are stuck with it, even if it’s later proven to be ineffective in practice.”

As readers and writers look for solutions to educational woes, here are some questions that can help lead to more informed decisions.

 1. Does the study prove the right point?

It’s remarkable how often far-reaching education policy is shaped by studies that don’t really prove the benefit of the policy being implemented. The Tennessee Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) study is a great example.

In the late 1980s, researchers assigned thousands of Tennessee children in grades K-3 to either standard-sized classes (with teacher-student ratios of 22-to-1) or smaller classes (15-to-1) in the same school and then followed their reading and math performance over time. The landmark STAR study concluded that K-3 kids in smaller classes outperformed peers in larger classes. This led to massive nationwide efforts to achieve smaller class sizes.

A key step is to avoid extrapolating too much from a single study.

Subsequent investigations into optimal class size have yielded more mixed findings, suggesting that the story told in STAR was not the whole story. As it turns out, the math and reading benefits experienced by the K-3 kids in Tennessee might not translate to eighth grade writing students in Georgia, or geography students in Manhattan, or to classes taught using different educational approaches or by differently skilled teachers. A key step in interpreting a new study is to avoid extrapolating too much from a single study, even a well-conducted one like STAR.

 2. Could the finding be a fluke?

Small studies are notoriously fluky, and should be read skeptically. Recently Carnegie Mellon researchers looked at 24 kindergarteners and showed that those taking a science test in austere classrooms performed 13 percent better than those in a “highly decorated” setting. The authors hypothesized that distracting décor might undermine learning, and one article in the popular press quoted the researchers as saying they hoped these findings could inform guidelines about classroom décor.

While this result may seem to offer the promise of an easy 13-percent boost in students’ learning, it is critical not to forget that the results may come out completely different if the study were replicated in a different group of children, in a different school, under a different moon. In fact, a systematic review has shown that small, idiosyncratic studies are more likely to generate big findings than well-conducted larger studies. Would that 13 percent gap in student performance narrow in a larger study that controlled for more variables?

In other words, rather than base wide-reaching policy decisions on conclusions derived from 24 kindergarteners, it would seem reasonable, for now, to keep the Jane Austen posters and student art on the classroom wall.

 3. Does the study have enough scale and power?

Sometimes education studies get press when they find nothing. For instance, Robinson and Harris recently suggested that parental help with homework does not boost academic performance in kids. In negative studies like these, the million-dollar question is whether the study was capable of detecting a difference in the first place. Put another way, absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.

Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.

There are multiple ways good researchers can miss real associations. One is when a study does not have enough power to detect the association. For example, when researchers look for a rare effect in too small a group of children, they sometimes miss the effect that could be seen within a larger sample size. In other cases, the findings are confounded—which means that the factor being studied is affected by some other factor that is not measured. For example, returning to Robinson and Harris, if some parents who help their kids with homework actually do the kids’ homework for them while others give their kids flawed advice that leads them astray, then parental help with homework might appear to have no benefit because the good work of parents who help effectively is cancelled out by other parents’ missteps.

It’s always a good idea to check whether a negative study had enough power and scale to find the association it sought, and to consider whether confounds might have hidden—or generated—the finding.

 4. Is it causation, or just correlation?

It turns out that the most important way for parents to raise successful children is buy bookcases. Or at least this is what readers could conclude if they absorbed just the finding summarized in this Gizmodo article, and not the fourth paragraph caveat that books in the home are likely a proxy for other facets of good parenting—like income, emphasis on education, and parental educational attainment.

Correlation—in this case, of bookshelves at home with achievement later in life—does not indicate causation. In fact, it often does not. The rooster might believe it causes the sun to rise, but reality is more complex. Good researchers—such as the original authors of the bookcase study—cop to this possibility and explain how their results might only refer to a deeper association.

No research study is perfect, and all of the studies we cited above have real merit. But, by asking good questions of any research finding, parents and journalists can help bring about sounder conclusions, in life and in policy-making. It’s easy to believe catchy, tweet-able headlines or the pithy summaries of institutional press releases. But since our kids’ education ultimately depends on the effectiveness and applicability of the available research, we should ensure that our conclusions are as trustworthy and formed as they can possibly be.

 

 

 

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