Category Archives: how teachers teach

Teaching Algebra II: Technology Integration

I observed an Algebra 2 class at Hacienda (pseudonym), a Northern California high school, on September 9, 2016. The high school has over 1900 students, mostly minority (Asian and Latino). About 20 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch–a measure of poverty used in U.S. public schools. Over 98 percent graduate and a very high percentage of those graduates enter college. About one-third of students take Advanced Placement exams with well over 80 percent qualifying for college credit. Less than 10 percent of students are English Language Learners and just over that percentage have been identified with disabilities. This is a high school that prides itself on academic and sports achievements and is recognized in the region, state, and nation as first-rate.

Beverly Young (pseudonym) is a veteran teacher of 22 years at Hacienda.  A slim woman of average height, wearing black slacks, white blouse with a beige sweater, she has been department head and very involved in coordinating the math curriculum at the school. Since 2008, she has embraced different technologies for the efficiency they brought to her in making out quizzes and tests and their help in connecting to students. She has been using an iPad with educational apps particularly Doceri for her math lessons since the tablet appeared.

The 50-minute lesson on Friday morning went swiftly by as the fast-paced, organized teacher taught about factoring quadratic equations. Announcements about upcoming quiz are posted on bulletin board next to whiteboard: “9/14—9/15, Quiz 4.1 to 4.2” –and upcoming test—“9/21—9/22, Test on 4.1 to 4.4.” The numbers refer to textbook sections.

There are 26 students in the room sitting at five rows of three desks next to one another, all facing the whiteboard. Young, carrying her iPad with her as she walks around, uses a remote to post slides and videos on the whiteboard during the lesson.

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For the first five minutes, Young shows a video about the Rio Paralympics. As students watch the brief video, Young, holding her iPad, walks around recording who is present and then stamping homework that students had laid out on their desks. I look around the class; they were watching intently athletes with disabilities who perform extraordinary feats.

Two minutes later, school announcements appear as a video on the whiteboard. Hacienda students prepare the daily announcements. A student anchors the announcements showing clips prepared by other students for different daily and weekly school activities (e.g., upcoming mini-bike racing event in Quad). In most schools where I observe classes, announcements are on the public address system and generally students ignore them as they drone on. I looked around and saw that all but a few of the students watched each announcement.

After announcements end, Young turns to the lesson for the day. The slide on the whiteboard is the objective for the day: “Factoring and Solving x²+bx+c=0.” She asks if there are any questions on the homework. No hands go up. Young then passes out handout for the day and directs students to go to Google Classroom on their devices (I see those students sitting near me have a mix of different laptops and tablets). She then asks students to go to Socrative, a software program, and gives instructions how they should login. She walks up and down aisles to see what is on students’ screens. After all students have logged in, she clicks on a short video that explains factoring quadratic equations by using an example of jellyfish.

Young explains what the key terms are, the different variables described in video and then applies it to factoring. She gives examples of binominals and asks questions as she goes along. She encourages students to talk to one another if they are stuck. She walks up and down aisles with iPad in hand as students answer. She then reviews binominals and moves to trinominals. “Now, look at polynominals.“ One student asks for clarification of terms. Young clarifies and asks: “You guys understand?” A few heads nod.

(For readers who wish to delve into the details of this lesson’s content, the teacher has made a five minute YouTube video for students that explains the content of this lesson.)

Young moves to next set of slides about “x intercepts” and examples of “distribution.” She then asks: Why do we do factoring? A few students answer. Young explains what the key points are and the differences between factoring and solving an equation. She asks students more questions, encouraging them to talk to one another to figure out answers.

The teacher segues back to a Socrative slide and to a question that she wants student to answer.

Young encourages students to help one another—as she circulates in the room. “If you don’t remember, write it down. It’s OK.” She checks her tablet to see what each student is doing and says aloud—“I see two guys who got it right—I am waiting for 15 of you guys to finish—talk to one another.” A few minutes later, looking at her tablet, she says—“most of you got it. I will give you another minute—I am waiting on eight more here.”

She talks to individual students answering questions and complimenting students as she traverses the aisles.

“Looks like most of you have the idea,” she says.

I scan the class and all students have eyes on screen, and are clicking away or whispering to a neighbor what appears to be an answer to the teacher’s question.

“Now you guys work on the second question.” She chats easily with students—“do you have answer here?” she asks all the while checking the iPad she carries around.

She then directs class to go to next question. “Do it and give me an answer for this—it’s a little tricky. You are more than welcome to ask one another.”

One student asked a question and then the teacher used the student question to correct misconception about solving a quadratic equation. Young answers the student and refers back to jellyfish video.

In scanning the class, all students look engaged. “If you guys have an answer like this—pointing to what she wrote on the whiteboard, then you got it wrong. Here’s a little hint—[could not catch what teacher says]. I’ll give you another 50 seconds—I just want to see what you guys remember”

Again, checking her iPad she can see each student’s work and can help student in real time as she cruises through the classroom.

“Now let’s go to fun stuff.”  After she posts slide from her iPad on the whiteboard on how to factor trinominals, Young explains each problem.

Young sees that some students are confused so she starts over. She continues to work on the numbered problems appearing on the slide, explaining what she is doing at each step. Then, she asks students to factor particular parts of equations. She checks her iPad and says: “I hear guys having an answer already—that’s great!”

“When is a 9 equal to zero or a plus nine equal to zero—now can you answer no. 8?” Students talk to one another, as I scan the room. Young circulates and listens to different students to further explain if they are stuck.

She asks: “Are we ready?” Teacher walks students through how she solves problem on whiteboard using the iPad. She then asks whether students know the difference between factoring and solving. One student says yes. She then asks students to jot down their answers to central question of the lesson —she walks around and talks with students as they click away.

The teacher ends class a few minutes before bell rings and then talks to different students, answering their questions. Other students begin packing up their things to await the end of the class. Bell rings.

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Teaching Advanced Placement Composition: Technology Integration

Room 409 at Los Altos High School in the south San Francisco Bay area is one of the most spacious for an academic subject —nearly the size of two regular classrooms–I have ever seen in the many schools I have visited over the years. I marveled at its carpeting, recliner chairs near the teacher’s desk and horseshoe arrangement of 3- and 4-desk clusters facing a table in the center of the room where Michael Moul, a 12 year veteran teacher, presides over his AP class.

Well over six feet tall, the stocky and goateed Moul is wearing a blue shirt, and dark slacks. He looks out on the 32 students in the room. He is also faculty adviser for the Talon, the school newspaper. Twelve desktop computers sit on the ledge below a wall and tall windows in the rear and side of the room that Talon staff use.

moul-classroom

Los Altos High School is a Bring-Your-Own-Device school. * The high school district adopted BYOD two years ago for its three schools after teacher- and administrator-initiated pilot projects established that well over half of the students had laptops or tablets they could use for their classes and enough teachers were sufficiently skilled to integrate the hardware and software into their daily lessons. For students who lack a device, forget theirs, or if one dies suddenly in school, students can easily get a device elsewhere in the school. Teachers decide how to weave technologies into their lessons; there is no district prescribed one-best-way for teachers to follow.

The lesson I observed on September 6, 2016 is the final part of a four and a half week unit on the Narrative Essay that began with the first day of school on August 15th.. In this unit, Moul spent the first two weeks of the semester on building community in the class, setting norms for small group work, and reading excerpts from Machiavelli, George Orwell, James Baldwin and others. Students then analyzed the structures of the essays they read. Moul also uses Socratic Seminars during the unit to have students discuss various writers’ essays and reflect on their own writing before beginning their assigned narrative essay (see here).

Moul’s 50-minute lesson (the class meets four times a week on a modified block schedule) begins a moment after the tardy chime sounds. There are 32 students in the class sitting at clusters of three and four desks facing the front white-board. Today’s lesson is divided into four parts.

1. Since there was a national holiday on Monday, Moul asks the students to close the lids of their devices and then begins with a question: what “good news” do they want to share with class? For a few minutes he listens to what students call out about their long weekend: “it is a four day week,” one says, for example. Then he reviews the assignment of writing two drafts about a story they read and how this AP class differs from Honors English class in the number of drafts they will do. More drafts, more revising, he says, is crucial to writing essays. On Friday, the class had looked at the first draft of a student-written “model” essay entitled “The Vulture” (see here).

2. He segues to the next part of the lesson where he tells students to read the second draft of the student’s essay, make comments and then re-read the first draft and make comments on what changes they see between the two.

Students open lids of their tablets and laptops and proceed to read and type in comments for the second draft. From my perch in the back of the class sitting at a student desk, I see that every student appears to be on task. Moul walks up and down aisles between clusters of desks pausing to see what students are jotting down on their screens and stopping to answer student questions.

After about 10 minutes, he asks students to re-read first draft—“I’ll give you 7-8 minutes”—and asks them to put in their notes the differences they see between the two drafts.

3. Watching the wall clock, Moul asks students to stop and to form their groups. Here is where the clusters of three and four desks closely set together become a venue for small group discussion. Moul reminds students to turn their desks to face one another since eye contact is important in looking at group members and not have one’s eyes glued to screen.

In this small group activity, students discuss what they saw as differences between the two drafts of “The Vulture.” I scan the groups and note that all are engaged in talking to one another. I see no student off-task. Moul continues to walk around and listen in to different groups’ exchanges. “In a few moments,” he says, “we will start chit-chatting.”

After a one-minute warning, the teacher ends this activity and asks students to turn around their desks to face front where he is sitting.

4. The final activity is a whole group discussion of the differences between the two drafts and what students saw as improvements in the second draft. About one-fourth of the students raised their hands to respond to teacher’s request for thoughts in this 12 minute activity. After he called on a few students and they spoke—Moul, sitting at a small desk in the center of the classroom horseshoe said, “let me call on people on this side now.” After students comments, the teacher would offer his opinion of the second draft, saying, for example, “I didn’t see much in the conclusion; there needs to be a balance between narrative and exposition.” When one student comments on use of dialogue within a narrative, Moul points out how dialogue helps the flow of the essay.

I scan the class and see that most students turn to listen to one another during the whole group discussion.

Chime sounds to end the period. Moul says “wait” and students sit as he goes on to remind class that their draft is to be turned in Thursday, two days hence—school is on modified block schedule. Teacher releases students and says: “have a great couple of days.”

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* The high school has over 1900 students (2015) and its demography is mostly minority (in percentages, Latino 28, Asian 21, African American 2, multiracial 2, and 45 white). The percentage of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches (the poverty indicator) is 22 percent. Fourteen percent of students are learning disabled and just over four percent of students are English language learners.

Academically, 99 percent of the students graduate high school and nearly all enter higher education. The school offers 20 AP courses—37 percent of the student body take at least one AP course and of those students taking AP tests– 83 percent have gotten 3 or higher, the benchmark for getting college credit. LAHS has been rated repeatedly as one of the top high schools (52nd out of over 1330 in the state and 339h in the nation’s 26,000 high schools). The gap in achievement between minorities and white remains large, however, and has not shrunk in recent years. The per-pupil expenditure at the high school is just under $15,000 (2014). See here, here, here, here, and here.

 

 

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Determining Success of Technology Integration in Classrooms, Schools, and Districts (Part 4)

 

I ended my last post by writing that attaining the top stage of popular models of technology integration was often equated with “success.” I stated that it was “unfortunate.”

Why?

The top stage in each model (and similar ones) implies that when the teacher has reached this apex of implementation, students are thoroughly engaged in learning tasks and the classroom has become a site of active student learning—the unspoken goal of process-driven cheerleaders of student-centered classrooms. In effect, those teachers who have reached the top rung of the ladder have fully implemented technology to produce the highest levels of student involvement in learning content and skills. Implicitly, that top rung becomes the gold standard of effective teaching in integrating technologies into classroom lessons. And that is unfortunate.

What many smart people ignore or forget is that describing exemplars of technology integration is not synonymous with student-centered teaching. And student-centered teaching is not the same as “success” in student learning. This bias toward one form of teaching leading to student “success”–however defined–is historic (see here).

After all, should K-12 teacher practices change when they reach the apex of the models for integrating technology into their lessons? Certainly, the technologies themselves do not require such a fundamental change from teacher-centered to student-centered. Evidence of technology use in Europe, Asia, and the Americas  (see JECR PDF) have pointed out how powerful devices often end up being used to support teacher-centered instruction.

What’s missing from the assumption that student-centered learning is the same as “successful” technology integration is that reaching the final stage in these models says little about whether students have actually learned anything from the content- and skill-driven classroom lessons they have experienced. Advocates of these technology integration models assume that engagement—the process of hooking children and youth into learning—will move teachers to become student-centered and that shift in practice will yield gains in academic achievement.  Maybe.

I say “maybe” because there is a prior crucial step that needs elaboration and documentation before anyone can determine what students have learned.  Although existing models of technology integration believe that engagement and student-centered classroom practices will produce gains in academic achievement, the book I am now researching will not test this underlying assumption. In my research, thus far, I focus on whether exemplary teachers, schools, and districts in integrating technologies into daily practices have altered what occurs daily in classrooms.

Why focus on changes in classroom teaching and not student outcomes? My answer goes back to the central issue of putting new technologies into daily practice. The all-important implementation question–too often overlooked, ignored, or forgotten by champions of new technologies–remains: have teachers altered their classroom practices as a consequence of using new technologies? Without such changes in teaching practices, then student learning and outcomes can hardly be expected to improve. That statement is a fundamental belief in establishing and operating any formal school, past and present. Thus, without changes in daily classroom practice, any gains in student academic achievement could not be attributed to what happens in classrooms. Improved measures of student achievement might then be the result of changes in student demography, school leadership, shifts in organizational culture or other factors–not what teachers were doing everyday with students. In my research, then, I am concentrating on determining to what degree teachers have altered how they teach as a consequence of integrating new technologies into their lessons.

Far too little research has been done in answering this question about changes in teaching practices. So in researching and writing this book, I, too, focus on the process of classroom change and not yet how much and to what degree students have learned from these lessons. Once changes in classroom practices can be documented then, and only then, can one begin to research how much and to what degree students have learned content and skills. As you have probably guessed by now, that would be another book, not the one I will be writing.

 

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Reforms That Stick: How Schools Change

There is a strongly-held myth many academics, policymakers, and reformers repeat weekly: schools hardly ever change. Those who believe in this myth often cite the large literature demonstrating failed innova­tions in schools or point at calcified bureaucracies and stubborn teachers and principals who block reform after reform (see here and here). Like all myths, this one has a factual basis. There have been many failures to transform schooling in the U.S.  From open-space schools to vouchers, there have indeed been vain attempts to alter the course of schooling.

Such a myth is useful for those who beat the drums that U.S. schools are broken. After all, they seek changes that meet their view of what constitutes a “good” education. “Troubled” schools is the basis for the profound pessimism that presently exists over the capacity of public schools to improve. So it is a politically useful myth, but it is inherently mistaken nonetheless.

The fact is that over the last century there have been many organizational, governance, curricular, and even instructional changes in public schools. Such changes have been adopted, adapted, implemented, and institutionalized. In most instances, these changes departed from what reformers in past generations wanted but they were changes nonetheless. Many of these changes have been incremental, that is, additions to existing structures and processes of schooling. However, a few of these changes have been fundamental, altering substantially public schools. Consider the following changes in U.S. schools over the past half-century:

  • Creation of small high schools;
  • Increased qualifications for teachers and administrators;
  • Decreased teacher/student classroom ratios;
  • Increased choices of schools, curricula, and programs available to parents;
  • New subjects in curriculum (environmental studies, advanced placement courses biology, calculus, history, etc.);
  • Use of small-group and individual approaches to classroom organization and instruction;
  • Public school desegregation of black children since 1954;
  • Increased access of children with disabilities to public school classrooms since the early 1970s.

Why has such a myth about the incapacity of schools to change become mainstream wisdom?

The basis for this myth about public schools seldom changing is due, in part, to reform-driven observers and participants failing to get what they wanted, ignoring past reforms,  overlooking how schools absorb innovations and transform them into stable routines, and failing to distinguish between the core of schooling and the periphery.  Amnesia, myopia, and sour grapes are congenital defects afflicting reformers. I will argue that there are clear lessons that can be both learned and applied by reform-minded policymakers, researchers and practitioners in understanding how changes get converted into institutional routines. And how some changes are at the center of the existing U.S. system of schooling and some migrate to the periphery but still exist.

How Fundamental Changes Become Incorporated as Incremental Ones

The kindergarten, junior high school, open-space architecture, and the use of computers, for example, are instances of actual and attempted fundamental changes in the school and classroom since the turn of the century that were widely adopted, incorporated into many schools, and then, over time, were marginalized into incremental changes.

How did this occur?

A familiar example is the curricular reform of the 1950s and 1960s, guided, in large part, by reform-inspired academic specialists and funded by the federal government. Aimed at revolutionizing teaching and learning in math, science, and social studies (spurred in part by a popular perception that Soviet education was superior to American schools, as evidenced by Sputnik), millions of dollars went to producing textbooks, developing classroom materials, and training teachers. Using the best instructional materials that scholars could produce, teachers taught students to understand how scientists thought and experienced the pleasures of discovery, how mathematicians solved math problems and how historians used primary sources to understand the past. Published materials ended up in the hands of teachers who, for the most part, had had little time to understand what was demanded by the novel materials or, for that matter, how to use them in lessons.

By the end of the 1970s, education researchers were reporting that instead of student involvement in critical thinking, problem solving, or experiencing how scientists worked, they had found the familiar teacher-centered instruction aimed at imparting knowledge from a text. There was, however, a distinct curricular residue of these federally funded efforts left in the textbooks published in the 1970s. The attempt to revolutionize teaching and learning evolved, in time, into new textbook content (see here, here, and here). Reformers were sorely disappointed at the small returns from major efforts.

Another way that fundamental changes get transformed into incremental ones is organizationally shunting them from the core of schooling to the periphery of the  system. For example, innovative programs that reduce class size (e.g., dropout prevention), integrate subject matter from diverse disciplines (e.g., gifted and talented programs), and structure activities that involve students in their learning (e.g., vocational programs) often begin as classroom experiments, but, over time, migrate to the periphery of the system. The schools have indeed adopted and implemented programs fundamentally different from what mainstream students receive. Yet it is the outsiders—students labeled as potential dropouts, vocational students, pregnant teenagers,those identified as gifted, at-risk, and disabled—who participate in the innovative programs initially. Thus, some basic changes get encapsulated, like a grain of sand in an oyster; they exist within the system but are often separated from core programs (see here and here).

Such conversions of fundamental changes into incremental ones occur as a result of deep-seated impulses within the organization to appear modern and to convince those who politically and financially support the schools that what happens in schools is up-to-date, responsive to the wishes of its patrons, but yet no different from what used to happen in the “real schools” that taxpayers remember from their youth—schools containing homework rows of desks in classrooms, and teachers who maintain order. Thus, pervasive and potent processes within the institution of schooling preserve its independence to act even in the face of powerful outside political forces intent upon altering what happens in schools and classrooms (see here, here, and here). Reformers seeking to “transform” schooling see such adaptations as failure; less self-interested observers see this as how organizations adapt politically to their environment.

So, to sum up what I have asserted thus far:

  1. Schools have changed a great deal.
  2. These changes have been in virtually all areas of governance, organization, curriculum, and classroom instruction.
  1. Most of these changes have been incremental; only a few have been fundamental.
  1. Many of these changes were adopted, implemented, and then became institutionalized. Some fundamental changes were incorporated into the core of the mainstream school system as incremental innovations, but many others became permanently lodged at the periphery of the system.
  1. Over time, many changes in schools preserve the overall stability of schooling.

With all of these changes that I have detailed, why is there this myth that schools are so resistant to change?

The answer, I believe, is located in cultural attitudes that Americans have toward the idea of change. Most Americans see change as a good thing. Annual changes in car styles and clothes are matched to a political system of annual, biennial, and quadrennial elections and a passion for moving from one place to another cherish the new and different. These attitudes are strong, abiding, and fed continually by a consumer culture that stresses new products, rotating name brands, and the search for different experiences.

Because the dominant belief is that change is good, planned change is viewed as even better. Anchored in evolutionary ideas that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and wedded to historic values of the American culture, the idea of progress has been honed to sharpness by generations of theorists, policymakers, and publicists. Planned change in schools (i.e., reforms) spill over public schools again and again because schooling is seen as a public good that also benefits individuals climbing the ladder to success. High expectations for what diplomas and degrees can do to one’s life chances drive Americans.  But U.S. schools are vulnerable to socioeconomic pressures coming from outside schools. After all, tax-supported public schools are political institutions. When changes occur and differ from what that generation of reformers sought, the label of failure gets glued to public schools.

With the rhetoric of failed U.S. schools driving the past 30 years of reform–recall A Nation at Risk–high expectations for schooling to bolster the economy over the past 30 years, reforms have flowed over U.S. schools. Many have stuck as incremental changes. Other changes have morphed into programs lodged at the periphery of schooling. Schools have indeed changed. Only disappointed, myopic and amnesiac reformers hang onto the myth of unchanging schools.

 

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A Math Teacher Remembers Her Students (Education Realist)

 

This abridged post comes from the blog Education Realist. The teacher who writes this blog prefers to remain anonymous. I have observed this teacher teach math and social studies lessons; we have also met and had lunch discussing many issues in public schools.

In the fall of 2012, I began my first year at this school. I met a group of 29 freshmen in their first high school math class: geometry.  From the beginning, we all clicked. A new school didn’t seem quite so intimidating because every day of that first semester started with camaraderie and good times–and some learning, too.

Of the 26 who stayed the whole year, all but one passed. Nearly half Asians (from every part of the continent), over half the rest Hispanic, and seven whites, and one African American. Ten athletes, including two who turned their ability into scholarships. The eventual senior prom queen. All those who passed made it through trigonometry, at least. Most made it to pre-calculus. Only a few made it to Calculus or Advancement Placement Statistics.  They reflected the school’s population writ large: diverse, athletic, not overly focused on academics, but smart enough to get it done.

A few others were never in one of my classes again, but I saw them frequently; they’d always shout a greeting across the quad, identifying themselves because they know I never wear my glasses.

The remaining saw me in at least one subsequent math class. None seemed to mind.

When we talked, as we did often, we’d regularly refer to “that first geometry class”.  Our touchstone memory, kept alive through four years of their education.

One of my “three-timers”, a sweet, tentative young man who never had another math teacher until pre-calc, stopped by with his yearbook. As we thumbed through the senior pages, calling out familiar faces, he suddenly said, “Man, I bet you’ve taught most of the seniors at least once.”

We counted it together—of the 93 rows of four students each, I’d taught 288 of them, or roughly 75%. Many more than once.

In the face of that percentage, I decided it was time to work around my dislike of crowds, speeches, and heat in order to represent on their big night. So at 4:30, I showed up at the stadium to help assemble them for the procession.

At first, the seniors were gathered in informal groups outside the staging area, taking pictures, talking, dancing about impatiently. Many called me over or waved, shouting out their names.

As they moved into the cafeteria for the staging, I wandered around, touching base, asking about plans, saying goodbye. As I’d expected, they needed teachers to organize the alphabetized lines for the procession, so I took a list of twenty. Rounded them up, hollered them into line, while the fourteen students I’d taught before joked that in less than three hours they’d never have to listen to me again. “And that’s why you became a teacher!” a bunch of them chorused.

Finally, the graduation manager gave the sign for zero hour. Suddenly well-behaved and serious, they streamed out in order, paused for a few minutes at some inevitable delay, and then the music started. I stood about 15 feet away from them, put on my prescription glasses, even in the sun, the better not to miss any face.

Waved and cheered at brand new adults who waved and cheered back, glad I was there, happy to see me, happy that I was wearing my glasses and could see them.  And when the last student–one of mine–turned for one final smile, I decided that the graduation itself, the heat, the speeches, the names, would dull the joy I felt in this moment. Time to go.

As I walked back to where I’d parked my car, latecomers were hustling to the stadium, many holding signs and pictures. I saw pictures I knew, stopped to congratulate the parents and send them on their way.

And suddenly:

“Hey, it’s my geometry teacher!”

I smiled at the pretty, lively young woman holding a…toddler? infant? gurgling happily walking towards me, waving.  But I’ve only taught three geometry classes in those four years, and was coming up blank.

“You don’t remember me? I’m Annie!” and I gasped.

“Oh, my God. Annie! I thought…I haven’t run into you for so long…you didn’t go back to live with your mom? I don’t think I’ve seen you in..three years? I didn’t recognize you. You’re all grown up! ”

Annie was the only one in the geometry class that didn’t pass.

“How’s your dad? You look fantastic. And how’s this little guy? How old is he, fifteen months?”

“Nope, just nine months.”

“He’s gorgeous. How are you? Come to see the grad…well, duh, yes.”

She laughed, and hitched the baby to her other hip. “It’s great you came! I still think about that geometry class. It was so fun!”

“I wish I’d run into you more. Go, get going, you don’t want to be late. Take care of this adorable one. I’m happy to see you.”

“Me, too. Take care. Bye!” and off she went, striding confidently into her future.

I watched her, thinking of all the questions I wanted to ask: did she graduate? Go to our excellent alternative high school? Is the baby’s dad in the picture? What are your plans? and being so very glad I didn’t ask.

I resist presenting Annie as a tragedy. I didn’t feel guilt.  But I did feel…awareness, maybe? I’m good with unmotivated underachieving boys. Am I as good with girls?

Could I reach out more? Give them reasons to try, to play along?

I then remembered a saying from my ed school professor

“You should never be satisfied. You can always do better.”

I told him that the two sentiments don’t follow. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.

Goodbye, class of 2016.

Goodbye, geometry class. I’ll miss you.

 

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The Perils of PBL’s Popularity (John Larmer)

Recently, I have published posts on Project-based Learning. A student and foundation official  have raised questions with and about PBL as an appropriate instructional approach. As this instructional reform, once the darling of early and mid-20th century Progressives, has surged again in practitioner and researcher circles, criticism of its implementation and use needs to be aired. For this post, I turn to John Larmer, a champion of PBL, who believes deeply in the instructional approach but shows concern over its potential faddishness and too easy acceptance. Former high school teacher of social studies and English, Larmer is Editor in Chief of publications at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). He writes often about Project-Based Learning. This post originally appeared March 21, 2016

As readers of this blog well know, Project Based Learning is a hot topic in education these days. The progressive teaching method is being touted as one of the best ways to engage 21st-century students and develop a deeper understanding of content as well as build success skills such as critical thinking/problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and self-management.

At the Buck Institute for Education, we think PBL is even more than that; it can be absolutely transformative for students who experience enough high-quality PBL in their K-12 years. They gain not only understanding and success skills but also confidence in their ability as independent learners and a greater sense of their own efficacy and power.

PBL is transformative for teachers and schools, too, as they create real-world connections to learning, change school culture, and guide students to successfully complete high-quality projects. And teachers who use PBL regularly can experience  “the joy of teaching,” which they may not – make that likely will not – in a test-prep, drill-and-kill environment.

You’ll notice I use the term “high-quality” twice in the above, which points to a real concern we have at BIE. We don’t want PBL to become yesterday’s news, another education fad for which much is promised and little delivered. This is why BIE developed and promotes the Gold Standard PBL model: to help ensure PBL’s place as a permanent, regular feature of 21st century education for all students.

If it’s not done well, I see PBL facing three dangers:

1. Unprepared Teachers & Lack of Support
Teachers who are not prepared to design and implement projects effectively will see lackluster student performance and face daunting classroom management challenges. Shifting from traditional practice to PBL is not a simple matter of adding another tool to a teacher’s toolbox. PBL is not just another way to “cover standards” that’s a little more engaging for students. PBL represents a different philosophy about what and how students should learn in school, and many teachers and school leaders do not yet realize its implications. It was born in the progressive education movement associated with John Dewey, with more recent ties to constructivism and the work of Jean Piaget. Adding to this situation is the fact that most teachers teach the way they were taught, and did not experience PBL when they were students – so they don’t have a vision for what it can be.

Schools and districts need to provide teachers with opportunites for extensive and ongoing professional development, from workshops provided by experts (like BIE’s) to follow-up coaching, to work in their professional learning communities. Policies around grading, pacing guides, benchmark assessments, and more will need to be re-examined. It also means having longer class periods or blocks of time for project work, and rearranging how students are assigned to classrooms to allow for shared students for secondary-level multi-subject projects. And – I can’t stress this enough – teachers will need LOTS of time to plan projects and reflect on their practice. This means changing school schedules to create collaborative planning time, re-purposing staff meetings, perhaps providing (paid) time in the summer, and finding other creative solutions. All of this is a tall order, I realize, but these are the kinds of changes it will take for PBL to stick.

2. PBL-Lite
Many teachers and schools will create (or purchase from commercial vendors) lessons or activities that are called “project-based” and think they’re checking the box that says “we do PBL” – but find little change in student engagement or achievement, and certainly not a transformation. I’ve been seeing curriculum materials offered online and in catalogs that tout “inquiry” and “hands-on learning” that, while better than many traditional materials, are not really authentic and do not go very deep; they do not have the power of Gold Standard PBL. (For example, I’ve seen social studies “projects” from publishers that have kids writing pretend letters to government officials – instead of actually taking action to address a real-world issue – and math “projects” where students go through a set of worksheets to imagine themselves running a small business, instead of actually creating a business or at least an authentic proposal for one.)

With materials that are PBL-lite, we might see some gains in student engagement, and perhaps to some extent deeper learning; many of these materials are in fact better than the traditional alternatives for teaching the content. But the effects will be limited.

3. PBL Only for Special Occasions or Some Students
PBL might be relegated to special niches, instead of being used as a primary vehicle for teaching the curriculum – or being provided equitably for all students. I’ve heard about really cool projects that were done in “genius hours” or “maker spaces” or Gifted and Talented programs, or by A.P. students in May after the exams are over… but most students in the “regular program” did not experience PBL. Or schools might do powerful school-wide projects that do involve all students once a year or so, but the teaching of traditional academic subject matter remains unchanged. If this happens, the promise of PBL to build deeper understanding, build 21st century success skills, and transform the lives of all students, especially those furthest from educational opportunity, will remain unfulfilled.

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Project-based Learning Needs More Learning (Gisèle Huff)

Gisèle Huff is the executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation. This post appeared on Flypaper, August 3, 2016

After almost eighteen years in the field of education, I have become convinced of the need to transform the way our children learn so that they can confront the unknowable challenges of the twenty-first century. I applaud any effort aimed at changing the mindset of those involved in the education system so that they can leave behind the traditional twentieth-century paradigm, which was (and in most places still is) an industrial model. Today’s enthusiasm for project-based learning (PBL) fits into the paradigm-shifting category, helpfully emphasizing that we learn best by doing. As a complete educational philosophy or strategy, however, it falls short on many fronts.

At some level, doing must be based on knowing. Yet in almost every PBL model that I’ve observed—Summit Public Schools being the main exception—little or nothing is said about the acquisition of knowledge. Instead, these models emphasize the completion of the project, and whatever knowledge students may actually acquire seems incidental and not clearly assessed. Of course, it’s true that knowledge alone is insufficient for today’s economy. Skills and dispositions must be developed in the learner for content to be relevant and engaging. But it is that “content” (a.k.a. knowledge) that students must master in order to apply it to hands-on projects. There is no need to sacrifice the rigor of content. Only its delivery and assessment must be changed to move from Carnegie units and seat time to competency-based learning.

The second problem with PBL as the main vehicle for students’ learning experience is that it is not nearly as personalized as its adherents would have us believe. One of the big problems that personalized learning seeks to solve is the “Swiss cheese” problem.  Because we all learn differently, moving along at a one-size-fits-all pace means that slower students are left with big gaps of knowledge and skills—gaps that will come back to haunt them later on. That is of particular concern when PBL occurs at the elementary level, when youngsters are building their knowledge base.

When PBL is deployed, knowledge acquisition is driven by the demands of a given project. The object may be “deeper learning,” but the outcome is definitely narrower, potentially excluding other critical knowledge and skills. This should be solvable, yet the PBL instructional models make no specific reference to mastery. In other words, students can complete a project without mastering the skills in that project or the knowledge underlying its successful completion.

PBL also suffers from a significant “free rider” problem. Because most PBL schools have students work in groups and do little tracking of individual performance, some students naturally coast on the work of others. In his five-minute “commencement speech” on the Getting Smart website, Tom Vander Ark encourages listeners to develop skills in team leadership and project management in order to succeed in the new economy. But each team has only one leader and one manager. Where does that leave the other members? In Most Likely to Succeed, a film focused on the largely PBL-based High Tech High, one of the two main students takes over a project that he has obsessed over and then fails to complete it in time. Somewhere along the line, the classmates who were once part of his group disappear. They seemingly abdicated their roles, and it is not clear how they benefited from the experience or how they were able to demonstrate their achievements in order to be assessed. The featured student himself doesn’t even master the knowledge and skills critical to the project! While embracing failure is an important part of a robust learning system, such setbacks should be used to help students revisit and master the requisite competencies. Kids should be provided with more insights into why they failed and what to do about it, so as to increase their likelihood of future success. Failure of core knowledge and skills is not an option in any effective learning environment.

Finally, PBL relies heavily on highly qualified teachers, so much so that High Tech High now trains its own. That’s well and good for High Tech High, but it isn’t a satisfactory formula for mass adoption of PBL. American public education faces an immense human capital problem that we have not been able to resolve since “A Nation at Risk” sounded the alarm in 1983. We cannot rely on extraordinary people to deliver a twenty-first-century education to all our children; not enough such people exist. We have to deploy strategies that empower the learners and teachers as they are, where they are. In its current form, PBL may work well for kids in boutique school settings. But it offers scant hope of solving education problems on the scale that America needs.

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