Category Archives: how teachers teach

Teaching Integrated Science at MetWest (Part 4)

On a table next to me is a fan whooshing air. A few students are waiting in line to see if a design of a pinwheel windmill they made out of thin wooden rods, rubber bands, scotch tape , twine, corks, and glue will twirl its blades as it holds a cup of at least eight pennies. I watch as the  teams of two to three students stand in front of the fan to see if their design works.

I am observing an integrated science class at MetWest taught by Jake Puzycki.*  He is wearing a Lehigh College T-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. As students entered the class, Jake held a basket into which each student dropped his or her cell phone. There are 18 students sitting in a horseshoe arrangements of desks–one side of horseshoe facing the other side–with a large open space with the teacher’s desk at the front near a large whiteboard. Next to one wall is a table holding raw materials for the pinwheel including a bucket of pennies and a fan blowing air.

On one wall of the spacious classroom is a poster:

Norms of Engagement

* I can participate fully

* I can honor my experience and the experiences of others

* I am Science-able and I can celebrate failure and learn from it

* I can create the environment I need to be successful

Previous lessons worked on the design and  all of the variables that go into make a simple wind turbine that can carry weight. Today is the test of the turbine and the completion of a worksheet. Photo below illustrates one kind of prototype. Also see YouTube segments of students trying out his creation in other science classes


The design, building, and testing out the prototype is part of a unit on energy. The class had built a small steam engine, studied fossil fuels, and made an electric motor. Now they are working on a wind turbine. Figuring out all of the different variables that go into constructing a light-weight pinwheel with blades that turn easily and can carry the weight of pennies in a cup has challenged this class. The enthusiasm over testing out the design they constructed with the fan and seeing how many pennies can be put in the cup beyond eight led to a highly competitive contest between a few of the teams–I describe that below.

The lesson involved students finishing up the manufacturing phase of completing their prototype and then trying it out. Groups of students at their tables were at different stages of building prototype. If the pinwheels or blades did not turn, then teams returned to their tables to jigger which of the variables (e.g., curvature of the blades, string, wooden rods, cork) had to be re-done. When reconfigured, team woul return to fans (there were two in the room) and then try again.

So there was a lot of movement, lot of engaged noise in the room as Jake (students call their Teacher/Advisor by first names at the school) moved around the room asking and answering questions and taking notes on his clipboard about what each team was doing.

As I scanned the room, most of the class was thoroughly engaged in the tasks. I did note that some team members had done the lion share of the design and testing leaving the team-mate uninvolved or doing minor work. A few students to my left were talking and off-task but Jake’s wending here and there throughout the large room brought those students back into their teams and focus on the overall task. The three dropped in and out of the class flow on testing their windmills.

What becomes clear as time passes is that particular teams were competing to see how much weight in pennies could be carried in the cup hanging from their pinwheel. At one point, Jake says aloud to the class: “We got a windmill with nine pennies here.” The team next to me is led by Tony. He asks Bryan, a student across the room, how many pennies he has in the cup. Bryan tells him 12. Tony and his team-mate confer and team-mate grabs more pennies from the class bucket to put in the cup.

Tony tries out the windmill and blades do not turn with more pennies in cup. He returns to his desk and fiddles with blades, takes off scotch tape on a few and adjusts length of string and tries again. Jake says to class: Y’all have 15 minutes left.”

I had asked Tony about the point of building a windmill and he explained to me the unit on energy. He understood the steam engine but when Jake told class that they would build a prototype wind turbine with an attached cup holding eight pennies, Tony said to me:” I didn’t think it would pick up any weight at all.”

Competition grows heated between at least four teams. Calls of “we have 14 pennies.” Bryan gets up to 15 and then Tony’s cup has 20 in it. Much  laughter at exchanges. Intensity increases as various teams strive to add pennies and still have the pinwheel blades rotate.

Jake asks a student near me: “What did you learn from the taped blades?” Student responded (I could not hear what he said). Jake tells student to look again at the worksheet on designing and constructing the windmill.

Rivalries grow heated between teams. In one instance, a team member near me uses the F-word in frustration and exchanges of F-words follow. Jake hears it and says: “language, language, please.” I hear no more swear words from that team.

I turn to another team and ask two students what the point was of building a wind turbine. One knew and the other did not.

Jake announces that it is clean up time and that each student had to complete the worksheet before leaving class. A few students say “no, let’s keep working on it.”

By this time, Bryan’s team had nearly 30 pennies in cup with blades turning while Tony’s team amassed over 40 pennies and, sure enough, when he put the prototype windmill that he had continued to rejigger as the cup weighed more and more, the blades rotated albeit slowly.

Jake comes over to Tony’s desk after he had yelled out that they had 47 pennies in the cup. Tony’s team-mate tells Jake that all of what they doing is like a propeller on one of those early planes lifting the weight of the wooden plane off the ground–like the Wright brothers did. Jake nods.

Most of the students are now writing on their worksheets. The three students near me who were dipping in and out of the task during the competition are still chatting with one another.

Jake tells class, “no clean up,” no cell phones.” Students clear desks, return materials to side of room, and toss out waste. Jake returns phones after inspecting desks. Class leaves and new bunch of students enter integrated science.


*A few MetWest teachers focus on content subjects and are not advisors who meet with students and their mentors in the community. Jake Puzycki is one such teacher.















Filed under how teachers teach

The Growth Mindset Problem (Carl Hendrick)


This appeared in Aeon, March 11, 2019

“Dr Carl Hendrick is the co-author of What Does This Look Like In The Classroom: Bridging The Gap Between Research And Practice (2017). He holds a PhD in education from King’s College and lives in Berkshire, England where he teaches at Wellington College. He is currently writing a book with Professor Paul Kirschner on foundational works in education research.”


Over the past century, a powerful idea has taken root in the educational landscape. The notion of intelligence as something innate and fixed has been supplanted by the idea that intelligence is instead something malleable; that we are not prisoners of immutable characteristics and that, with the right training, we can be the authors of our own cognitive capabilities.

Nineteenth-century scientists including Francis Galton and Alfred Binet devoted their own considerable intelligence to a quest to classify and understand human cognitive ability. If we could codify the anatomy of intelligence, they believed, we could place individuals into their correct niche in society. Binet would go on to develop the first IQ tests, laying the foundations for a method of ranking the intelligence of job applicants, army recruits or schoolchildren that continues today.

In the early 20th century, progressive thinkers revolted against this idea that inherent ability is destiny. Instead, educators such as John Dewey argued that every child’s intelligence could be developed, given the right environment. The self, according to Dewey, is not something ‘ready made’ but rather ‘in continuous formation through choice of action’. In the 1960s and ’70s, psychologists such as Albert Bandura bridged some of the gap between the innate and the learned models of intelligence with his idea of social cognitive theory, self-efficacy and motivation. One can recognise that there are individual differences in ability, Bandura argued, but still emphasise the potential for growth for each individual, wherever one’s starting point.

Growth mindset theory is a relatively new – and wildly popular – iteration of this belief in the malleability of intelligence, but with a twist. In many schools today you will see hallways festooned with motivational posters, and hear speeches on the mindset of great sporting heroes who simply believed their way to the top. These are all attempts to put growth mindset theory into practice through motivation. However a growth mindset is not really about motivation, but rather about the way in which individuals understand their own intelligence.

According to the theory, if students believe that their ability is fixed, they will not want to do anything to reveal that, so a major focus of the growth mindset in schools is shifting students away from seeing failure as an indication of their ability, to seeing failure as a chance to improve that ability. As Jeff Howard noted almost 30 years ago: ‘Smart is not something that you just are, smart is something that you can get.’

Despite extraordinary claims for the efficacy of a growth mindset, however, it’s increasingly unclear whether attempts to change students’ mindsets about their abilities have any positive effect on their learning at all. And the story of the growth mindset is a cautionary tale about what happens when psychological theories are translated into the reality of the classroom, no matter how well-intentioned.

The idea of the growth mindset is based on the work of the psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford University in California. Dweck’s findings suggest that beliefs about ourselves can have a profound effect on academic achievement and beyond. Her seminal work stems from a paper 20 years ago that reported on a research project with schoolchildren that probed the relationship between their understanding of their own abilities and their actual performance.

In the experiment, a group of 10- to 12-year-olds were divided into two groups. All were told that they had achieved a high score on a test but members of the first group were praised for their intelligence in achieving this, while the others were praised for their effort. The second group were subsequently far more likely to put effort into future tasks while the former took on only those tasks that would not risk their initial sense of worth. Praising ability actually made the students perform worse, while praising effort emphasised that change was possible.

Dweck’s work suggests that when people believe that failure is not a barometer of innate characteristics but rather view it as a step to success (a growth mindset), they are far more likely to put in the kinds of effort that will eventually lead to that success. By contrast, those who believe that success or failure is due to innate ability (a fixed mindset) can find that this leads to a fear of failure and a lack of effort.

Imagine two children who are faced with taking a test on a tricky maths problem. The first child completes the first few steps but then hits a wall, and instantly feels demotivated. For this child, the small failure is incontrovertible evidence of simply not being good at maths. By contrast, for the second child, this small failure is merely a barrier to eventual success, and confers an opportunity to improve overall maths ability. The second child relishes the challenge, and works to improve – that child is displaying a growth mindset. According to the theory, the key to encouraging this disposition is to praise the effort and not the ability. By telling children that they are smart or intelligent, you are merely confirming the idea of innate ability, fostering a fixed mindset, and actually undermining their development. Dweck’s claims are supported by a lot of evidence, indeed she and her associates have spent more than 30 years exploring this phenomenon, including taking the time to respond to criticism in an open and transparent way.

Growth mindset theory has had a profound impact on the ground. It is difficult to think of a school today that is not in thrall to the idea that beliefs about one’s ability affect subsequent performance, and that it’s crucial to teach students that failure is merely a stepping stone to success. Implementing these ideas has been much harder, however, and attempts to replicate the original findings have not been smooth, to say the least. A recent national survey in the United States showed that 98 per cent of teachers feel that growth mindset approaches should be adopted in schools, but only 50 per cent said that they knew of strategies to effectively change a pupil’s mindset.

The truth is we simply haven’t been able to translate the research on the benefits of a growth mindset into any sort of effective, consistent practice that makes an appreciable difference in student academic attainment. In many cases, growth mindset theory has been misrepresented and miscast as simply a means of motivating the unmotivated through pithy slogans and posters. A general truth about education is that the more vague and platitudinous the statement, the less practical use it has on the ground. ‘Making a difference’ rarely makes any difference at all.

A growing number of recent studies are casting doubt on the efficacy of mindset interventions at scale. A large-scale study of 36 schools in the UK, in which either pupils or teachers were given training, found that the impact on pupils directly receiving the intervention did not have statistical significance, and that the pupils whose teachers were trained made no gains at all. Another study featuring a large sample of university applicants in the Czech Republic used a scholastic aptitude test to explore the relationship between mindset and achievement. They found a slightly negative correlation, with researchers claiming that ‘the results show that the strength of the association between academic achievement and mindset might be weaker than previously thought’. A 2012 review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK of attitudes to education and participation found ‘no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)’. In 2018, two meta-analyses in the US found that claims for the growth mindset might have been overstated, and that there was ‘little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students’.

One of the greatest impediments to successfully implementing a growth mindset is the education system itself. A key characteristic of a fixed mindset is a focus on performance and an avoidance of any situation where testing might lead to a confirmation of fixed beliefs about ability. Yet we are currently in a school climate obsessed with performance in the form of constant summative testing, analysing and ranking of students. Schools create a certain cognitive dissonance when they proselytise the benefits of a growth mindset in assemblies but then hand out fixed target grades in lessons based on performance.

Aside from the implementation problem, the original growth mindset research has also received harsh criticism and been difficult to replicate robustly. The statistician Andrew Gelman at Columbia University in New York claims that ‘their research designs have enough degrees of freedom that they could take their data to support just about any theory at all’. Timothy Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh who has been trying to replicate Dweck’s work in a third study in China, is finding that the results are repeatedly null. He notes in a 2017 interview that: ‘People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.’

An enduring criticism of growth mindset theory is that it underestimates the importance of innate ability, specifically intelligence. If one student is playing with a weaker hand, is it fair to tell the student that she is just not making enough effort? Growth mindset – like its educational-psychology cousin ‘grit’ – can have the unintended consequence of making students feel responsible for things that are not under their control: that their lack of success is a failure of moral character. This goes well beyond questions of innate ability to the effects of marginalisation, poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantage. For the US psychiatrist Scott Alexander, if a fixed mindset accounts for underachievement, then ‘poor kids seem to be putting in a heck of a lot less effort in a surprisingly linear way’. He sees growth mindset as a ‘noble lie’, and notes that saying to kids that a growth mindset accounts for success is not exactly denying reality so much as ‘selectively emphasising certain parts of’ it.

Much of this criticism is not lost on Dweck, and she deserves great credit for responding to it and adapting her work accordingly. In a recent blog, she noted that growth mindset theory ‘is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house’. In fact, she argues that her work has been misunderstood and misapplied in a range of ways. She has also expressed concerns that her theories are being misappropriated in schools by being conflated with the self-esteem movement: ‘The thing that keeps me up at night is that some educators are turning mindset into the new self-esteem, which is to make kids feel good about any effort they put in, whether they learn or not. But for me the growth mindset is a tool for learning and improvement. It’s not just a vehicle for making children feel good.’

For Dweck, it’s not just about more effort, but rather purposeful and meaningful effort. And it’s not just in the classroom where she feels that the growth mindset is being misunderstood, it seems to be happening in the home too: ‘We’re finding that many parents endorse a growth mindset, but they still respond to their children’s errors, setbacks or failures as though they’re damaging and harmful,’ she said in an interview in 2015. ‘If they show anxiety or overconcern, those kids are going toward a more fixed mindset.’

Dweck might be right that the theory is not always well understood or put into practice. There is always the danger of disappointment in the translation from educational laboratory to classroom, and this is partly due to the Chinese whispers effect, whereby research becomes diluted and distorted as it goes through its journey. But there is another factor at work here. The failure to translate the growth mindset into the classroom might reflect a profound misunderstanding of the elusive nature of teaching and learning itself.

Effective teaching, at its best, defies prescription. The same resources and the same approaches that are successful in one classroom can be completely ineffective in another. In his book Personal Knowledge (1958), Michael Polanyi defined ‘tacit knowledge’ as anything we know how to do but cannot explicitly explain how we do it, such as the complex set of skills needed to ride a bike or the instinctive ability to stay afloat in water. It is the ephemeral, elusive form of knowledge that resists classification or codification, and that can be gleaned only through immersion in the experience itself. In most cases, it’s not even something that can be expressed through language. As Polanyi put it so beautifully in his book The Tacit Dimension (1966), ‘we can know more than we can tell’. As a contrarian colleague once said to me about his frustration with the increasing codification of the classroom: ‘Perhaps we should be brave enough to allow it to remain a mystery.’

Good teachers are like good actors, not in the sense that they are both artists, but in the sense that the best teachers teach you without you realising that you’ve been taught. If students get a whiff of being part of an ‘intervention’, then it is likely that the very awareness of this will have a detrimental effect. The growth mindset advocates David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claim that these interventions should not be seen as ‘magic’ and should be delivered in a ‘stealthy’ way to maximise their effectiveness – miles away from the standard use of motivational stories, posters and explanations of brain plasticity. As they put it in 2011: ‘if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits.’ Pedagogy is not medicine, after all, and students do not want to be treated as patients to be cured.

How students learn well can be very counterintuitive. You might think it is safe to assume that, once you motivate students, the learning will follow. Yet research shows that this is often not the case: motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation. If you try to ‘motivate’ students into public speaking, they might feel motivated but can lack the specific knowledge needed to translate that into action. However, through careful instruction and encouragement, students can learn how to craft an argument, shape their ideas and develop them into solid form.

A lot of what drives students is their innate beliefs and how they perceive themselves. There is a strong correlation between self-perception and achievement, but there is some evidence to suggest that the actual effect of achievement on self-perception is stronger than the other way round. To stand up in a classroom and successfully deliver a good speech is a genuine achievement, and that is likely to be more powerfully motivating than woolly notions of ‘motivation’ itself.

One reason for this might be the over-generalised picture of the growth mindset: it tends to be talked about as a global or general skill as opposed to a domain-specific one. Many interventions focus on kids having a kind of global attitude to their own intelligence that can then be transferred to any learning situation but this is rarely the case. For example, some students can have a positive mindset in maths but a negative mindset in history due to a highly variable range of factors. The idea that a workshop on the plasticity of the brain and some videos of famous sportsmen who have failed in the past can translate into a domain-general growth disposition is simply unrealistic.

Students are most engaged when they are being supported through specific tasks to stretch their understanding beyond its current base, but ‘engagement’ doesn’t necessarily mean they’re learning anything. As the New Zealand education researcher Graham Nuthall showed in The Hidden Life of Learners (2007), ‘students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50 per cent of what the teacher is teaching.’ Nuthall’s work demonstrates that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do, as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. The psychologists Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and Robert Bjork at the University of California, Los Angeles, describe such activities as ‘desirable difficulties’, which refers to the kinds of things that are difficult in the short term, but that lead to greater gains in the long term. These point to a range of strategies that are more prosaic and less attractive than growth mindset interventions – familiar strategies such as testing, self-quizzing and spacing out learning.

Clearly, something has gone wrong somewhere along the way between the laboratory and the classroom. The US education scholars Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle outline a fundamental problem with the education system. Teachers, they say in their book Inside/Outside (1992), are subject to top-down models of school improvement, and are often passive objects of study in the educational research that underpins those models:

The primary knowledge source for the improvement of practice is research on classroom phenomena that can be observed. This research has a perspective that is ‘outside-in’; in other words, it has been conducted almost exclusively by university-based researchers who are outside of the day-to-day practices of schooling.

In a very real sense, teachers have been given answers to questions they didn’t ask, and solutions to problems that never existed. It is not surprising that they feel subject to fads and theories about students that do not hold up to scrutiny. For example, the problem of how to plan lesson content to match the individual ‘learning style’ of students has now been proven to have been a waste of time, and a sad indictment of how much time and energy has been expended on theoretical interventions with little to no evidence to support them.

Recent evidence would suggest that growth mindset interventions are not the elixir of student learning that many of its proponents claim it to be. The growth mindset appears to be a viable construct in the lab, which, when administered in the classroom via targeted interventions, doesn’t seem to work at scale. It is hard to dispute that having a self-belief in their own capacity for change is a positive attribute for students. Paradoxically, however, that aspiration is not well served by direct interventions that try to instil it. Yet creating a culture in which students can believe in the possibility of improving their intelligence through their own purposeful effort is something few would disagree with. Perhaps growth mindset works best as a philosophy and not an intervention.

All of this indicates that using time and resources to improve students’ academic achievement directly might well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. In their book Effective Teaching (2011), the UK education scholars Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds note: ‘At the end of the day, the research reviewed has shown that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.’

Many interventions in education have the causal arrow pointed the wrong way round. Motivational posters and talks are often a waste of time, and might well give students a deluded notion of what success actually means. Teaching students concrete skills such as how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, specific feedback, worked examples and careful scaffolding, and then praising their effort in getting there, is probably a far more effective way of improving confidence than giving an assembly about how unique they are, or indeed how capable they are of changing their own brains. The best way to achieve a growth mindset might just be not to mention the growth mindset at all.



Filed under how teachers teach, raising children, school reform policies

Teaching Math at MetWest (Part 3)

After walking into the classroom, I sit down at a table with another student and wave hello to the young teacher. On the whiteboard are the objectives for the day:


*Do Intro task now


*exit ticket

Lawrence Teng, wearing chinos and a plaid shirt is a first-year teacher and graduate of the University of Michigan. One semester at MetWest under his belt, he passes out the Introductory task–a slip of paper with three tasks for students to do–as students enter the classroom (LT refers to Learning Target). The 19 sophomores and juniors get immediately to work on the tasks.


A slide on the whiteboard replicates the square with empty space on the slip of paper students begin working on.

The large classroom has a slowly whirling ceiling fan. Tables sitting two to three students each face the whiteboard and the teacher who is working in the front of the room with his laptop and document camera sitting on some cabinets (his desk is in the rear of the room). Lawrence uses the laptop to flash images onto the whiteboard. The room has a clock and phone.

After about five minutes, Lawrence (in this school, students call teachers by their first name) asks the students to stop. He then turns to the question on the slip. “Anyone has any memories from weekend.” One student responds about what his family did. No other responses. Then teacher asks about the squares and how to find answer without counting them. He calls on Bruce who says his answer. Lawrence asks Bruce to come to front of the class to explain his strategy in getting the answer he gave. Bruce tells class each step of his thinking to reach his answer; Lawrence is at whiteboard showing what Bruce said on the grid of squares.

Teacher then says that there are many strategies to solve the problem and Bruce returns to his table. He begins applauding Bruce and a few students join in. He then calls on Maurice and he and Maurice go through the same routine of figuring out that there are 56 squares with eight missing–all without physically counting them (as I did). Lawrence sums up student answers and shows the different strategies of adding, subtracting, and multiplying to get the correct number of missing squares. During this part of the lesson. Wrapping up the opening exercise, Lawrence tells class what assignment is due Friday.

I note that there are two other adults in the room. One is a volunteer (a retired math professor whose son was a staff member at the school) who helps individual students when the class is doing independent work. Another adult is a resource teacher working with individuals who have been identified with special needs.

Then Lawrence turns to the item that was listed on his agenda for the day’s geometry lesson–$$$$$$. He shows a brief video of an art exhibit at the Guggenheim exhibit of paper one-dollar bills pasted the walls and columns of a room. After showing the short clip twice, he stops it at the dollar room.

As I scan the class, students are very attentive to the images of one dollar bills in this  museum exhibit. I do not see any students off-task.



He then asks class to write down their questions and turn to partner at table and share questions with one another. Students do so. At one point, he says aloud that he is putting Angel’s and Maurice’s name on the whiteboard for playing around. No response from either student as class works on questions.

Lawrence then asks students to tell him what their questions are and he will divide them into two categories: questions he can and cannot answer. “Can you grab money off the wall?” No, Lawrence replies, it is an art exhibit and there are security guards in room. He calls on students by name and they reply with their questions. He sorts the questions into the two buckets. One student question he pauses over: “How much money is on the walls of the room,” one asks.

With that question, teacher asks students to guess at an answer to the student’s question. Tables erupt into numbers yelled out and much quizzical laughter throughout the class.

Lawrence lists the guesses on the whiteboard:

*$20 thousand dollars




Teacher then directs students to tell table-mate how they arrived at their guess. Students’ actively engaged with one another as I look around the room.

Lawrence quiets the class and asks:”To get the correct amount of money in the room, what information do you want or need from me?

Students quickly yell out what they want from Lawrence.

*How big is the wall?

*What is size of a dollar bill?

*Are there layers of dollar bills or one each pasted to the wall?

*How many feet across is the wall?

*How tall is the wall?

At the table next to me, I ask the three students what question they came up with. One showed me what they wanted to know: “Figure out area of wall and divide it by area of dollar.”

Lawrence then flashes on the whiteboard close-up photos of the money (students see that there are no layers of dollar bills) and then slides of the dimensions of the columns and walls. He hands out a two page floor plan of the room with the surface area in centimeters of both the columns and the walls. The handout also show a photo of a dollar bill and its dimensions in centimeters. Further information on the handout states that there are 3516 dollar bills on the North Column and the same for the South Column. The dimensions on the floor plan for the width, length, and height of the room are on the floor plan marked in meters and centimeters. He calls on one student to read out dimensions listed on the floor plan. Lawrence asks class: “How do you find the area of one of the walls?” A few students respond by saying to look at the dimensions of the floor plan.

Lawrence then asks students to estimate how much money is on the walls and columns. A few students move to a file box near me and take out calculators and return to their seats. Students at each table (a “team,” Lawrence calls them) get to work. A buzz of noise arises in class as teams work at their tables.

Lawrence quiets the class and before asking them what amount of money they came up with, he asks  the class–a choral question–what strategy did each team use in coming up with their answer. In the whole group discussion, a few students reply and list the steps.

Lawrence summarizes the strategies students used: Divide area of walls by area of dollar bills. He goes over steps to find area of rectangle (base multiplied by height). A few students near me comment aloud that their estimates resemble the problem of rectangle of squares with missing ones that they looked at when class began.

A few minutes remain in the class–students look at wall clock–and begin putting notebooks and papers in their backpacks and standing up. Lawrence tells them to fill out Exit Slips. Standing students sit down and write answers to three questions on slip:

*How did you feel during lesson?

*Did your group work well together?

*Choose option that best describes you;

–I do not know what is going on

–I know how to solve problem.

–I am done with problem.

Chimes sound and students drop off slips in box on a table near me as they leave room.












Filed under how teachers teach

Whatever Happened to Media Literacy in Schools?

Far more policy talk than classroom action is the short answer. The long answer is below in the questions I ask.

Where and When Did the Idea Originate?

Having students become media literate across school subjects has been talked about since the early 1960s in Europe and the U.S. but has hardly made a dent in lessons that most teachers teach. In Britain, Canada, and other nations there has been far more policy talk and even some action (media literacy Europe/Canada ). For example, in the United Kingdom, the 2003 Communications Act required the government to promote media literacy in British schools. David Buckingham and colleagues tells the story of what happened since then (see here and here).

Much less has happened in the U.S. with its decentralized system of public schools in 50 states, over 13,000 districts, and nearly 100,000 schools. A timeline for media literacy, broadly defined, begins in the 1960s.

The earliest U.S. classroom materials that I have found were created in 1972 as a Media Now kit of lessons and activities that teachers could use in their classrooms. Based on the work of media analyst Marshall McLuhan and psychologists Jerome Bruner’s Process of Education and Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives , Ron Curtis and others developed a self-directed learning kit containing 50 individual packages divided into seven modules for teachers to use. The source I used claimed that it was used in over 600 schools.

There has been much state activity in promoting media literacy in schools  since (see above timeline) but no mandated courses as far as I can determine. For example, although California curriculum standards call for media literacy skills in English/ language arts and history/social science in K-12 grades, current high-stakes state tests contain no items that examine media literacy.

Media Literacy Now, an advocacy organization, keeps tabs on state legislation that include funding, promotion, and action involving media literacy. The National Association for Media Literacy Education has made connections to Common Core standards adopted by most states.

With state and federal officials enacting laws promoting media literacy and  organizations lobbying for more of it in schools and classrooms, individual teachers in scattered schools across the country have heeded the message and introduced lessons into their classrooms. But not much more than that. Pressing teachers and students to score well on tests, graduate high school, and go to college, media literacy lessons are close to the bottom of most teachers’ “to do” lists.

What Problems Did Media Literacy Intend To Solve?

The major problem is the current inability of children and youth to parse Internet and media ads, to evaluate sources of information harvested from the Internet, and reason critically about what they see, hear, and digest from mainstream and social media.

Sam Wineburg and colleagues surveyed in 2016 nearly 8,000 students from middle school through college on their skills in judging Internet information. The survey made a splash in media outlets. He says:

Our most reported finding was that 82 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between an ad and a news story. But putting it that way isn’t really fair to kids: While dozens of outlets reported this nugget, none mentioned an industry study that showed 59 percent of adults couldn’t tell the difference, either.

Wineburg’s solution?

The answer is not to affix another barnacle to the curriculum’s hull. We need to rebuild the entire ship. What should history teaching look like when kids can go online and find “evidence” for the canard that “thousands” of black men put on grey uniforms to take up arms for the Confederacy? What should science teaching look like when anti-vaxxer sites maintain a “proven” link between autism and measles shots (despite a retraction by the journal publishing the claim and the fact that “no respectable body of opinion” supports the linkage)? What should language arts class look like when ad hominem arguments, name calling and “alternative facts” overwhelm civil discourse?

What Does Media Literacy Look Like in a Classroom?

I offer two examples of lessons using new technologies, one in a Canadian elementary school on analyzing candy ads after students had read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a Providence (RI) high school social studies lesson on World War II.

Watch on YouTube the Canadian elementary school teacher, using an interactive white board, teach a lesson on candy ads.

For the high school lesson, journalist Dana Goldstein describes a lesson where the teacher had students use laptops to analyze sources–her example of students working on media literacy skills.

I sat in on Jennifer Geller’s 10th grade Contemporary World History class at the Providence Career and Technical Academy. That day’s state-mandated lesson objective was to “trace patterns chronologically for events leading to World War II in Europe.” But Geller, a 12-year veteran in the district, used technology to layer a more ambitious and contemporary media literacy skills-building session on top of the dry history.

First the sophomores read the following paragraph in their Prentice Hall World History textbook:

With the [German] government paralyzed by divisions, both Nazis and Communists won more seats in the Reichstag, or lower house of the legislature. Fearing the growth of Communist political power, conservative politicians turned to Hitler. Although they despised him, they believed they could control him. Then, with conservative support, Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933 through legal means under the Weimar constitution.

Geller asked the kids to go to the back of room and pick up individual laptops, which had been borrowed for the day from the school’s library. Their task for the rest of the period was to search online for additional accurate information about Hilter’s rise to power that had not been included in their textbook, and then present it to the class.

Geller engaged the kids in a conversation about how search engines work. “Does anyone know how the first link on Google becomes the first one?” she asked. “It’s not the best — it’s that the most people linked to or clicked on that site. You should not always trust the first thing you see!”

Geller encouraged the students to look at Wikipedia, but skeptically. “Anyone can write these articles,” she explained. “The fact that anyone can change them or fix them means if something is wrong, it can be fixed. You have to be careful with it, just like you have to be careful with your textbook.”

Geller continued, “Who do you think gets to write a textbook? And how often is it updated? Maybe a downside is the textbook doesn’t change much from year to year.”

After searching online, the students learned that it wasn’t just “conservative politicians” who supported Hitler. In fact, a full third of the German public had voted for the Nazi party. “That’s why you use two sources!” Geller proclaimed.

The lesson was relevant to both historical research and day-to-day fact finding online. It also gave the students something pretty disturbing to think about regarding the relatively broad support enjoyed by Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933.

In both lessons, digital technologies were used to get students engaged in tasks that built and used critical thinking skills to parse a textbook paragraph and candy ads. But the technology didn’t spur students, it was the teacher’s questions about candy ads and a textbook passage about Hitler becoming Chancellor that mattered.

Does Media Literacy Work?

Hard question to answer. Because media literacy is multidimensional (print and non-print–TV, digital, mobile phone) and because it covers efforts to increase knowledge and influence behavior among both adults and children, and, finally, because so few classroom and school studies have been done beyond teacher and student surveys, results are all over the map.

There is, for example Renee Hobbs seven year study (2007) of the English department reorganization of the 11th grade at Concord High School (New Hampshire) into “Media/Communication.” Academic outcomes from the experimental Media/Communication group exceeded those of a control group, according to Hobbs.

A meta-analysis of media literacy interventions (51 studies) to increase knowledge,change beliefs, and alter behavior did show some positive evidence of changes but marginally so.

Advocacy to spread media literacy (however defined) is prevalent and shapes responses to the above question far more than research and evaluation studies.

What Has Happened to Media Literacy?

While there is much tumult in states over the need for media literacy in schools, there is far more policy talk than policy action, and even less media literacy, however defined, put into classroom lessons than advocates desire. Since Ron Curtis’s Media Now kits developed in the early 1970s, media literacy remains far more talk about its importance in classroom lessons than what occurs when teachers close their doors. According to Wineburg, the situation–students unable to sort out fake from factual news, judging the veracity of sources on the Internet–calls for more than new courses, occasional lectures, or professional development days for teachers on the subject. As long as the curriculum standards, testing, and accountability regime remains intact as it has for decades, more policy talk about doing something to educate children and youth in parsing media and the Internet will occur than policy action.








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The Internet Is Sowing Mass Confusion. We Must Rethink How We Teach Kids Every Subject (Sam Wineburg)

Sam Wineburg, a professor of education at Stanford University, is the author of “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).”  This op-ed appeared in USA Today, February 12, 2019

In 2016, months before the presidential election, my research team surveyed nearly 8,000 students from middle school through college on their ability to judge material from the internet. We concluded that students’ ability to navigate online information could be captured in one word: bleak. We released our findings two weeks after Donald Trump’s election and were immediately swept up in the media maelstrom.

Our most reported finding was that 82 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between an ad and a news story. But putting it that way isn’t really fair to kids: While dozens of outlets reported this nugget, none mentioned an industry study that showed 59 percent of adults couldn’t tell the difference, either.

We are all in the same boat. That boat is taking on water.

In the wake of mass confusion caused by the internet and social media, there have been calls for a renewed commitment to teaching civics and instructing students in the foundations of democracy. But if we think this challenge is only about civics, we’re deluding ourselves. Bringing education into the 21st century demands that we rethink how we teach every subject in the curriculum.

We’re still teaching history using only print texts even as kids are being historicized online by Holocaust deniers and Lost-Causers. We’re teaching science in an era when online anti-vaxxers gain traction by using scientific language to deceive and intimidate. We’re teaching students to solve math equations while remaining oblivious to the fact that they’re being bamboozled by cunning infographics that mask rising temperatures by playing fast and loose with the X and Y axes.

Massive education response needed

We will fail the challenge posed by the digital revolution if we think there’s a cheap way out of this mess. A new course in media literacy or a half-day presentation by the librarian is a Band-Aid. Ushering education into the digital age will demand the educational equivalent of thehuman genome project: a decade-long effort that cost billions of dollars, engaged thousands of scientists, and relied on international cooperation with teams from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and other nations.

The first step is to get an accurate fix on where students are at. We can’t confuse kids’ ease in operating digital devices with the sophistication needed to evaluate the information those devices yield. We’ll need a host of innovative assessments that can be administered online and that take advantage of artificial intelligence and natural language processing for scoring.

Next, we’ll need massive curriculum development and experimentation to help kids succeed on these assessments. We will need to develop new approaches to professional development for teachers, who sometimes are as confused as their students. And we’ll have to overhaul teacher education, so that new teachers feel prepared when they tell kids to open their Chromebooks.

Digital threat is a national defense issue

Most of all, we’ll need public education in the deepest sense — the education of the public — in our libraries, our community centers and our places of worship — to reach parents and grandparents so we can help them help their children become informed citizens.

In October 1957, a whirling orbital ball known as Sputnik roused Americans from their slumber and set into motion a rethinking of our educational system. I don’t see the equivalent of the National Defense Education Act coming out of Washington anytime soon. But the threat to democracy by a digitally credulous citizenry is nothing less than an issue of national defense.

Treating it as anything but guarantees a further erosion of democratic society.


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How Little We Know about How Teachers Teach Common Core

Peter Greene, a retired teacher in Pennsylvania, had this to say about teaching the Common Core standards:

What happens to a teacher who doesn’t teach to the standards?
Oh, teachers still had (and have) to submit lesson plans that show alignment to standards, based on curriculum that is aligned to the standards. However, the alignment process is simply a piece of bureaucratic paperwork– you can simply write down the lessons and units that your professional judgment considers best, and then just fill in the numbers of various standards in the blanks. Maybe you have an administrator who will hold your feet to the fire (“Mrs. McTeachalot, I believe your use of standard RL.5.2a is not entirely on point”), but mostly, life will go on, your paperwork will be filed, the district’s report to the state will show that teachers are teaching to the standards with fidelity, and you can close your classroom door and do what you know is right. As long as the paperwork is good, reality can take care of itself.

Greene may well be right. For so little is known about how teachers actually teach the Common Core in their daily lessons.

Since 2010, nearly all states have adopted the Common Core standards or a modified version. Surely, those state policymakers and federal officials who championed these standards believed that adopting these reform-driven standards would lead eventually to improved academic performance for all students (see here, here, and here).

In the back-and-forth over the politics of these standards, it was easy for these policymakers to lose the critical, no, essential, connection between adopting a policy and implementing it. Any adopted policy aimed at changing students is put into practice by teachers. And the Common Core standards asked teachers to make major shifts in how they teach. So civic and business leaders and academic experts who pushed such reforms  forgot a simple fact:  teachers are the gatekeepers to the “what” and “how” of learning.  Mandating big changes in how teachers teach ain’t going to happen. Why?

Because virtually ignoring the very people who must put a policy into practice nearly guarantees partial implementation. Without involving teachers in the process, without spending time and money on insuring that teachers are in sync with the policy and have the knowledge and skills necessary to put it–and there’s never only one “it”–into practice, the hullabaloo and promises curdle into policymaker and practitioner complaints and disappointment.

Yet for the most part, even after initial struggles over getting the right materials and learning the ins-and-outs of the standards, most teachers across the country have taken on the responsibility of putting these standards into their daily lessons. So how has the implementation gone?

Do one really knows since few researchers, pundits, and policymakers have systematically examined a representative sample of actual classroom elementary and secondary teachers (across academic subjects) teachers teaching lessons aligned to the Common Core standards. Yes, that sentence is correct. Actual classroom observations have seldom occurred. What is available are surveys teachers completed over the past five years.

Sure, surveys asking teachers about their teaching to the Common Core standards is useful. Teacher perceptions of what and how they teach lessons geared to the Common Core such as content, activities, and assessments give a glimpse of what happens when teachers close the classroom door.  That glimpse, however, is a self-report by someone who recalls what happens in their lesson. Useful but insufficient to judge what actually occurs in that room during the lesson.

So what have surveys of teacher opinion on their lessons revealed thus far about teaching the Common Core?

A 2016 national online survey of elementary teachers teaching math Common Core standards sponsored by the Fordham Foundation, an advocate of the standards, listed the following “takeaways” from the survey:


  • Teachers know what’s in the Common Core—and they’re teaching it at the appropriate grade level. Though it may seem unsurprising, it is notable that teachers are able to identify from a list of topics (some of which are “decoys”) those that reflect the standards—and they report teaching them at the grade levels where they’re meant to be taught. Once upon a time, teachers shut their doors and did their own thing. Now we have many instructors teaching to the same high standards nationwide.
  • Further, they’re changing how they teach. More teachers report incorporating the standards into their teaching, including the 64 percent of teachers who say they  increasingly require students to explain in writing how they arrived at their answers.
  • But teaching multiple methods can yield multiple woes. The Common Core math standards require that students “check their answers to problems using a different method.” And sure enough, 65 percent of K–5 teachers are teaching multiple methods more now than before the standards were implemented. But 53 percent of teachers also agree that students are frustrated when they are asked to learn different ways of solving the same problems.


Then there is a recent RAND study (2018) that sought out responses over the past three years from a randomly selected panel of math and English language arts (ELA) teachers about the text and online materials they use and their daily classroom practices.*

Here is what the RAND report concluded:

Given that the Common Core and similar standards are being implemented in most states
across the United States, one might expect to see changes in teachers’ knowledge. However, we saw no clear changes in teachers’ knowledge about their mathematics standards when comparing teachers’ survey responses in 2016 and 2017….

For ELA, we found a decrease in teachers’ perceptions that “assigning complex texts that all students in a class are required to read” was aligned with their state standards, despite the fact that the use of complex texts is emphasized in most state standards.

Teachers’ use of published textbook materials changed very little over the period examined in this study. Thus, despite the fact that most published textbooks we asked about in our survey were not clearly aligned with the Common Core, teachers did not appear to be shifting toward more use of standards-aligned textbooks.

However, teachers’ use of online materials did change over the period of our surveys. Specifically, mathematics and ELA teachers reported using more standards-aligned,
content-specific online sources and less use of Google in 2017 than in 2015.

On one hand, these findings suggest that teachers are seeking online materials to help them address state standards within their content area. On the other hand,—a lesson repository that is not vetted for quality or standards-alignment—saw a large uptick in use, and more than one-half of the ELA and mathematics teachers in our sample reported using the site “regularly” (once a week or more) for their instruction. In addition, increases in use of standards-aligned and content-specific
materials were not even; such increases were not as clearly present among teachers of the most vulnerable students (i.e., ELLs, students with IEPs and low-income students).

These findings suggest that teachers who serve our neediest students may not always be aware of or using online materials that support standards-aligned instruction….
We saw no changes in standards-aligned practices among all mathematics teachers, and we saw few changes when comparing responses among all ELA teachers. However, the changes we found suggest that some teachers may be engaging students in fewer standards-aligned practices now than in previous years. For mathematics, in particular,
teachers serving less-vulnerable students reported using significantly fewer standards-aligned practices in 2017 than in 2016, whereas we did not see these
significant decreases among those serving more vulnerable students.

That said, teachers’ self-reports about students’ engagement in various practices should be interpreted with caution, given what we know about the accuracy of teacher self-reports….

That last sentence is key. Yes, teacher surveys (both Fordham’s and RAND’s) give a partial picture of practice. They are useful bits of evidence. But self-reports need to be handled carefully since earlier studies that collected teacher perceptions of how they taught were compared to independent observers who were in the very same classrooms (including students) and gaps arose  between teacher perceptions and observers’ reports (see here, here, and here). Thus, the reliability of such surveys is suspect.

The answer, then, to the question of whether Common Core standards have changed what teachers think and do is mixed. From these surveys of math and ELA teachers do report a few changes but stability in classroom practices persist. While teacher surveys are surely helpful in suggesting what occurs when policies get implemented, they do not substitute for researchers directly observing classroom lessons, interviewing teachers before and after lessons, and analyzing student responses to teaching practices.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Failed Predictions on Technology in Schools

Over five years ago, Petar Jandric a professor at the Polytechnic of Zagreb, interviewed me about my decades of writings on technology in schools. The entire interview appeared in the journal E-Learning and Digital Media (2015) Here is a portion of that interview about my poor record in predicting the future.


PJ: Three decades ago, you published Teachers and Machines: Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920. Only four years after the famous appearance of the computer on the cover of Time magazine in 1982, you dedicated a whole quarter of the book to ‘the promise of the computer’. Some of the presented conclusions are just as relevant today. For instance, it cannot be disputed that ‘to question computer use in schools is to ask what schools are for, why teachers teach certain content, how they should teach, and how children learn’. At the time, however, it was impossible to predict the depth and extent of social change brought by information and communication technologies.

Standing on the shoulders of previous research efforts, we can learn from fulfilled predictions just as much as we can learn from failed promises. Based on the most successful predictions and the deepest historic failures, therefore, what can be learned from the first one hundred years of marriage between education and technologies? If you set out to rewrite Teachers and Machines, what would you do differently?


LC: Thanks, Petar, for recalling that quote from Teachers and Machines. It is the one I have used often. Please allow me to reproduce the blog post I wrote about this topic five years ago:

A quarter-century ago, I described and analysed the history of machines deployed in classrooms (film, radio, instructional television and the newly arrived desktop computer) to help teachers teach more, faster and better. Then I did something foolish in the final chapter. I predicted future uses of computers in classrooms from my vantage point in 1986.

Of course, I was not alone in making predictions. Seymour Papert dove into the same empty pool that I did a couple of years before my venture into crystal ball gazing: ‘There won’t be schools in the future… I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum –all of that’ (Papert, 1984).

Based upon my research in schools and experience as a teacher and superintendent, however, I was far more skeptical about the penetration and use of computers than Papert.

Here is what I predicted in Teachers and Machines for computers in schools:

I predict that…in elementary schools where favourable conditions exist, teacher use will increase but seldom exceed more than 10 percent of weekly instructional time [roughly 3 hours a week]. Pulling out students for a 30-to-45-minute period in a computer lab will, I suspect, gain increasing popularity in these schools…In secondary schools, the dominant pattern of use will be to schedule students into [labs] and one or more elective classes where a score of desk-top computers sit…

In no event would I expect general student use of computers in secondary schools to exceed 5 percent of the weekly time set aside for instruction. I predict no great breakthrough in teacher use patterns at either level of schooling. (Cuban, 1986: 99)

As events unfolded in the next quarter-century, my prediction flat-lined. Access to computers –desktops, laptops, hand-held devices and interactive white boards – soared. In writing Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms (Cuban, 2001), I did find higher percentages of students and teachers using computers in preschools, secondary schools and universities that ruined my 1986 prediction.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers across the country have received 1:1 laptops, tablets and white boards.

In researching classrooms since 2001, again, I have found higher use by teachers and students in both elementary and secondary classrooms. More teachers – my guess is over 30% across different districts – use machines for instruction (I include the whole panoply of available high-tech devices) regularly, that is, multiple times a week. Another 30 to 40% use computers occasionally, that is, at least once a month. The remainder of teachers – still a significant minority – hardly ever, if at all, use machines for instruction. This continues to puzzle researchers and policymakers since they know that nearly all teachers have high-tech devices at home. So my 1986 prediction on teacher and student use of computers for classroom instruction was inaccurate and died a quiet death. Compassionate readers seldom remind me that I flopped in peeking into the future. The facts are clear that students and teachers use high-tech devices for instruction more than I had foreseen.

One final confession. I stated clearly in Teachers and Machines and subsequent writings that the uses of new technologies for classroom instruction would seldom satisfy those advocates of more instructional use in schools, because teacher use would tend toward the traditional, blending both teacher- and student-centered approaches, and such approaches were seen as unimaginative. Not all teachers, by any means, but enough for the charge of pedestrian teacher use to be commonly pointed out. Both of these predictions have turned out to be accurate.

I confess to my errors in foreseeing the future for no other reason than to remind readers, both champions and skeptics of computers in schools, that accurate predictions are rare and inaccurate ones are not only common but often memorable. So if I re-wrote Teachers and Machines today, what predictions would I make?

I would predict that well over 90% of US schools a quarter-century from now will be age-graded and brick-and-mortar, not virtual ones. There will be much more blending of online and face-to-face instruction in classrooms as students get older – more of the latter in elementary schools and more of the former in secondary ones. Most teachers – at least 75% – will use some form of device regularly in parts of daily lessons because they have expanded their repertoire of teaching activities to achieve their goals for student learning. Those uses by teachers and students will be far more integrated into daily lessons, yet will still be criticized by that future generation of techno-enthusiasts as obsolete and unimaginative….


Given my confession of being a poor predictor, readers may well chuckle at what I said in this interview of five years ago. So be it.

Unmentioned in the above post has been the poverty in student achievement gains that can be attributed to use of devices and software. The existing body of research on the effects of technology on achievement would give willies to the purveyors of hyped claims that new devices and software would raise students’ test scores, increase their critical thinking, and boost school performance. Alas, no such outcomes have materialized after billions have been spent on machines and software. But that will be the subject of another post.


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