Friday, October 4, 2013

Thinking = Learning Potential?

How much do you remember about what you learned in high school?  College?  How about last month?  I have taught with the Michigan High School Content Expectations in Chemistry for about seven or eight years.  I think there are about 10-15 HSCEs that I would argue common citizens should have a good understanding of.  The others?  Well not so much.  Why does anyone need to know the how to do stoichiometric calculations with chemical reactions?  How about the different in number if neutrons in one isotope vs another?  Even if someone does learn these things if left unused for any extended period of time they'll forget.  I've heard someone say there is three types if knowledge students need to learn in school...things they need to know for 40 minutes, for forty days, and for 40 years.  Unfortunately, I think a lot of what we teach in some of our core classes is in that 40 minute to 40 day range.

When I got hired for my first job out of college as a research assistant in the genetics department at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati I was told the main component of my job was to run a process called PCR.  I had learned, briefly, about the polymerase chain reaction while in undergrad but had no idea where to begin running this procedure on my own.  I nervously asked if I was expected to know how to do this on my own, and my boss said of course not, that he would train me.  This was the "real world" wasn't it?  This is what we teachers preach to our students all the time, isn't it?  Wasn't this why I went to school, to learn things that I would use in a future job?  Well, it turns out I was only expected to be able to learn something new, not necessarily utilize everything I has learned in each class.

I am not in any way saying that no content should be taught.  Learning conceptually difficult material is beneficial, it builds confidence, and develops a sense if curiosity.  Being able to critically think about new material is aided by prior knowledge, but what is that essential knowledge in each core area?  I would argue that we need to spend significantly less time on content and more on critical thinking.  Teach the basics, give students the opportunity to think, challenge them with difficult material, and then make them think some more.

My boss at CHMCC didn't care that I wasn't walking into the lab with the ability to run a PCR machine on my own.  What he cared about was whether or not I could learn quickly, and understand the importance of each step of the PCR procedure.  Content matters, but if I had an endless supply of content facts, but no ability to think beyond those facts, what good would they be?  Teach kids how to think, how to be curious, and do so in the context of your core subject area, and they'll be successful in whatever they choose.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Is Homework Dead?

First, let me sum up my basic philosophy on homework:
1) It should ALWAYS be checked, it SHOULD NOT be graded, ever.
2)  It has a role, especially with skill-based concepts like calculations
3) It should include more thinking, and less doing

We need a whole Teacher Leadership Challenge on why homework should not be graded.  I am happy to see in my 11 years of teaching the shift has pretty dramatically shifted to the side of "homework shouldn't count".  But should it exist at all?  Yes.  Students, learners, people in general need to practice.  What that practice looks like will not be the same from class to class.  We spend some time doing extra practice in my classes, but never without doing the same skill in class first.  In my advanced class (AP and IB Biology) a lot of the "homework" is simply reading and or research.  Look at the concepts, study them, then let's discuss them in class, where the real learning will occur.  The real meat of a good learning experience, hearing others' opinions, justifying your own, breaking down preconceived notions, cannot happen in a vacuum.  You need others to do this.  This can't happen as homework.

One thing I have shifted to recently in my classroom is a focus on more reflective though in my classroom.  This has taken the place of a lot of the homework we used to do.  Let's do the work in class, discuss our struggles and realizations, then think about it home.  Yes, just think.  One way I have found I can encourage this is through reflective bogging.  Thanks to Gary Abud and a workshop he facilitated on Modeling in Chemistry this past summer, I learned a great structure to implement this fully into my classroom.  The results:  impressive.  After the first month of school my students have had maybe two assignments to take home and finish, but a weekly blog to write.  The focus on what we did the previous week, how it ties to our learning goals, and what they personally felt/thought/saw during the activities we completed.  Their writing has impressed me.  Of course not every student has finished one every week, but only a few haven't followed through with the weekly task.  The writing I have seen has been awesome.  I believe it has forced my students to be more cognizant during class activities, and has really pushed them to think about what is the purpose of our day to day activities.  I feel this has been extremely valuable.

I have a hard time believing the same level of engagement and thought is possible with doing the odd number problems on page 117 tonight.  Keeping up with the skills necessary to be successful is clearly important in a classroom.  I would argue that the skills are more effectively taught and practiced in the classroom.  Thinking about the application of these skills and why they are needed have become my go to homework assignment.  If you ask if these blog assignments are graded, we need to talk.

What Is Important in Assessing Students

I love data.  I like numbers, relationships that emerge from them, predictive information, and whatever else comes from analyzing data.  Assessments provide me with data.  They can give at least a clue as to whether or not my students grasped some of the new concepts I taught.  They easily identify which students need a lot of help, which students found the questions too easy, and sometimes assessments can highlight topics that students struggle with universally.  There is one major disconnect that I have always struggled with when it comes to traditional assessments in my classroom:  is the information gathered timely enough to do anything with it?  Most often I would answer no.

I have started to shift my mindset when it comes to traditional end of the unit assessments or even final exams.  The data gathered from these assessments isn't all that valuable because of the structure of our current curriculum framework.  We move on to the next concepts, pounding away at new material as some of the old material is clearly visible in the rear view mirror still a little tattered.  The most important data should be used to quickly modify instructional practices in the moment.  How do we generate this kind of data?  This is where the paradigm has really shifted for me.  It is not the end of the unit that matters the most to me any more.  At that point, I should feel I have done all I can do.  But what about when I get done walking through an explanation and I see a room full of blank stares?  Isn't that data more valuable than the fact that 74% of my students got question 6 correct on the unit 3 exam?  With the push for high stakes testing ever so strong I think we have lost our focus on assessments for learning as being valuable, and I would argue, more valuable than any assessment of learning.  Diane Ravitch argues, rather convincingly, that we do need more testing, but tests that teachers write, as they know what was happening within the four walls of that classroom more intimately than anyone else (http://dianeravitch.net/2013/09/27/why-teachers-should-write-the-tests-not-corporations/).  I would not argue for the abolishment of all summative assessment, it does have a place, but it shouldn't be the end-all-be-all of what has happened in the classroom.  Teachers should begin to rely more on what their students are saying and doing at the moment, not worry so much about the common timeline established by the department.  Focus on helping students learn and master topics while at the same time helping them recognize their shortcomings and giving them the tools to overcome them.

Two years ago I attended a workshop that gave me a massive set large student whiteboards.  They sat mostly untouched in my classroom last year, as I wasn't really sure how to incorporate them in a way that would become routine for my students.  This past summer I attended another workshop which, in part, focused on HOW to use whiteboards.  It was awesome.  My students use them now almost daily.  I see what they think almost at the moment they think it.  It's been fantastic.  I can address issues individually with a student or if I quickly see most of the class has a misconception I can speak with the whole class.  This is not the kind of data that I was used to analyzing, but data can come in a lot of different forms, right?

What Would Make Me Feel "Highly Effective"

The last few years my district has been rolling out a new evaluation system like most other districts in Michigan.  I find little value in this system.  Honestly, it's a series of hoops to jump through, boxes to check off, and if all done appropriately I will be deemed "highly effective", or "effective" and hopefully not "minimally effective" or "ineffective".  It's a scam.  For whatever reason our state officials feel as this is the best way to reform our allegedly failing public schools (a myth by the way see: http://langleyeducator.weebly.com/)  .  I really don't know if our administrators truly believe this is an effective system or if they are just following the rules too, but there has been nothing about these evaluations that has allowed me to become a better teacher, not one thing.  I'm not saying this out of spite or bitterness because I have been rated lower than I would have liked, because I haven't.  My ratings have been very good, but does it matter?  What would make me feel most accomplished as an educator?  It's not an evaluation, that's for sure.

The first day of my chemistry classes each year I usually share with my students that I won't be offended if they come back a year from that day and cannot recite some specific, arbitrary fact about chemistry that they got correct on a test at one point in time.  The content to me, is not important at this level.  We spend a lot of time talking about how to learn, what makes a good learner, and how that will carry into their daily lives;  these are things I feel will benefit them much more in the future, moreso than knowing that the fluoride 1- ion has 9 protons and 10 electrons (an actual content expectation in Michigan for chemistry)!  When I think back to the teachers and coaches I remember the most, there is not one piece of content that sticks out to me to explain why I feel they had an impact on my life.  It was the questions they had for me about my soccer game the night before, the concern they had when they heard I had gotten into a bit of a scuffle with a fellow classmate, the personal stories they shared about growing up themselves and lessons they had learned along the way.  In short, it was the relationships that mattered to me.

Content is in some ways obviously important.  There are certain things a well-educated productive citizen should be exposed to.  Assessing students on these items has its place too.  Can you learn difficult concepts?  Can you articulate this knowledge in writing or other effective forms of communication?  The value of the assessment though does not equal the value of the education.  What values and interests students take with them into their own adult lives is what matters most.  Any chance a new teacher evaluation system will reflect that?  Yeah, I didn't think so.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

I Had to Teach to Learn

I was a good high school student.  I was active in leadership, athletics, and academics.  I was able to pull off some good grades, and graduated with a strong GPA.  At the time of my graduation I would have considered myself a good learner.  At the end of my first semester of college my perspective was quite different.  I had struggled in all of my core classes, I had no defined study habits or study patterns, and my GPA was a solid indicator of this shift in my self-awareness as a learner.  What was so different?  How had a few short months changed the complete mental picture I had of myself as a student and a learner?  It took the better part of the next decade for me to figure this out, but along the way I came to the conclusion that my perception of who I was as a learner while in high school had been falsely inflated.  I had not been a good learner.  I was lucky, and somewhat lazy.  I chose to stick with classes that where I knew ahead of time I would find success.  I had not challenged myself, and as a result had never developed the skills essential to be a good learner.  The irony of this realization is that it did not all quite come together for me until I finished my first year of teaching.  In the role of the teacher, I actually became a good learner.

My school experience was rather traditional.  Teacher in front of the class, students in rows struggling to pay attention and absorb as much information as the teacher was willing to serve up.  My first year teacher, I was reluctantly assigned a schedule that consisted of mostly chemistry.  It was at that moment that I began to really regret sleeping in through a lot of my 8am chemistry classes in college.  I had passed the Michigan Certification Test in general science, I had a Masters Degree in education, and the school felt I was qualified with 19 credits of chemistry under my belt.  I felt rather unprepared, but a job is a job.  I worked harder that year than I think I ever had in my life.  I studied up on my content just ahead of planned lessons.  I read, took notes, rewrote notes, made presentations, designed lab activities and read some more.  I began to feel more confident with the material, and realized I was actually learning this stuff better than I ever had while in high school and college.  I had to.  How else was I going to discuss these concepts with reluctant high school students, anticipate their questions, be able to answer their questions, and feel comfortable enough to say I had done my best to get them to learn?  It was hard work, something I hadn't been used to before.

So what is the role of the teacher?  The role of the teacher is that of a true learner.  A lover of knowledge and the power that it holds.  A model, for what good learning looks like.  Demonstrate and discuss how you put all your class information together.  Be honest when you don't know something, and show your students what it will take to adequately learn something new.  As a learner, you must work hard.  Face up to the challenge of not knowing something, be curious, and ask questions.  Be proactive, and seek out information on your own.  Don't wait for someone to tell you something.  The best teachers, the ones most passionate about their subject matter and what they do for a living, just might be the best learners out there.