Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reflection on Bloom’s Taxonomy

If you’re like me, you heard a great deal, early in your career, about Bloom’s Taxonomy.  We, as beginning teachers, were exhorted to push the quality of dialogue up with students, urging and helping them to think more critically and develop a deeper understanding of events and ideas.  My current reading seems, on the surface, to challenge that notion, particularly for younger elementary students.  It seems that for younger learners, the goals must be quite explicit and the course of instruction directed primarily toward building a broad base of general knowledge about the topic studied.  Deep insights are generally unlikely.

Cognitive research has made clear several characteristics of human learning.  First, we are, by nature, curious beings.  At the same time, our brain is not primarily evolved as a thinking organ.  It’s first job is to take care of tasks which are highly automatic and reflexive.  We possess, relatively, a small amount of working space in out brains to solve major problems.  Consequently, our problem-solving skills develop quite slowly.  To solve a problem which seems quite easy to a trained adult (read teacher) may take quite a bit of both background knowledge about the subject area and sufficient experience with similar problems to see strategies or patterns which lead to a solution.  Bringing a depth of knowledge and experience makes creative thinking more economical.  It’s a wonderful thing about our brain that when we possess such knowledge and experience, we quite often don’t even realize that a time existed when we didn’t have it.  Unfortunately that makes it ever-so possible that we will fail to recognize that our students are not yet prepared to solve problems that we’d call “simple.”

I have said before that I’m an enthusiastic supporter of Accelerated Reader. One of the reasons for my enthusiasm is that it takes advantage of a principal human characteristic:  curiosity.  When students are given the opportunity to select the books they read, even with a modest bit of guidance from the teacher as to both reading level and content, they approach their reading with interest and the confidence that they can understand and enjoy the book that they’ve selected.  In the elementary grades, a heavy diet of “free” reading is a tremendous resource for the acquisition of abundant general knowledge about people and things, the raw material of later problem-solving skill.  While, on the surface, this may seem random, all learning is to a large extent dependent on circumstance and chance.  I’d argue, though, that both the skill and the breadth of background understanding gained by reading will support students in the acquisition of more specific content knowledge dictated by standards or curriculum.  No textbook or “class book”, chosen for a group of grade-level students, can equal the educational impact of a similar amount of effort put into broad reading at a student’s diagnosed level, which is, at that moment, interesting to that student.

Friday, January 29, 2016

On the Move Again

Those who know me, know that I love activity.  A “normal” day for me includes a 7-mile run, 45 minutes at the gym, a 16-mile bike ride, and quite possibly 9 holes of golf - walking.  To say that I’m Type-A about exercise is only to understand that no letters come before “A”.  So, you might imagine the pleasure I felt when, while reading Brain Rules by John Medina, I discovered that it’s our genetic heritage as homo sapiens to move - a lot.  Scientists who study such things say that our early ancestors walked and ran as much as 20 miles daily in search of food.  Exercise is “wired in” to our DNA.  You may wonder where, in an education blog, I’m going with this.

It turns out that scientists who study modern man have discovered that our bodies respond particularly well to exercise.  That’s probably not a huge revelation to you.  For those of you who don’t exercise regularly, you probably know that you “should” and that all manner of healthy outcomes result from regular exercise.  All manner of modern ills, like osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease, and sleep disorders are cured or diminished by exercise.  What may be less well known, though, is that cognitive abilities are greatly enhanced by exercise.  Seniors who exercise regularly can be shown to not only live into their 90’s, a feat in and of itself, but to be mentally sharper than sedentary adults many years their junior.  It’s even been demonstrated that sedentary individuals who take up an exercise program show measurable improvement in cognitive ability in as little as four months of exercise.

Of particular interest to us as teachers is research that showed that students who were put on an exercise program of 30 minutes of jogging three times a week also showed an improvement in cognitive ability.  Also interesting is that when the program of regular jogging was terminated, students showed a drop-back to previous levels of ability as before they were running.  I must confess that as as classroom teacher, P.E. was not my first priority.  In fact, it was the first thing to go if we had a shortened week.  That may have been a mistake.  I’d be interested to hear what other teachers have done about exercise for their students.  For example, I’m guessing that 15 minutes daily might be easier to schedule and maintain.  How about 20 minutes, 4 times a week?  What about very active games?  What do you think?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Brain Rule #6

John Medina’s Brain Rules is organized into 12 “rules” about how our brains operate.  I find the book to be uneven, but certainly worth the read.  Brain rule # 6 is:

“We don’t pay attention to boring things”

Medina summarizes the chapter thus:

“•  The brains attentional “spotlight” can focus on only one thing at a time:  no multitasking”
  • We are better at seeing patterns and abstracting the meaning of an event than we are at recording detail.
  • Emotional arousal helps the brain learn.
  • Audiences check out after 10 minutes, but you can keep grabbing them back by telling them narratives or creating events rich in emotion.”

Although I found his discussion of multitasking fascinating, especially the time lag that takes place as our brain moves sequentially from one object of attention to another, I’ll leave it for another blog entry.  Suffice it to say, there is an attentional cost, a dangerous one while driving or operating machinery, because we really can’t attend to two things at a time.

The idea that audiences really can’t attend for more than 10 minutes is one should resonate with teachers.  I remember reading somewhere a long time ago that if you observe who is doing the talking in the classroom, you’re seeing who is doing the learning.  It also conjures up recollections of a routine from Power Teaching where after presenting a concept, the teacher commands the students to “teach” the concept to the person next to them and then that person “teaches” the concept back to the first.  That routine raises the level of concern in students and is, I think, “rich in emotion” as Medina recommends.  And, it breaks up that hypnotic spell of continuous teaching.

Accepting the 10-minute rule, and the idea that the brain responds best to patterns, perhaps leads the teacher to a plan for lesson design.  Whatever the teacher wants to accomplish should be broken into 10-minute increments with a clear break between the segments.  It is best to show and tell the class what those segments are at the outset and carefully explain how the segment are related to the “big idea” for that period.  I’m guessing that less would be taught in a standard period, but what is taught would be learned more completely because students would have clear examples and experiences related clearly to the main idea stated at the beginning of the period.  The brain likes organization.

Monday, January 25, 2016

One size fits all...

I continue to be impressed with Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?  I’d like to share something he said that particularly resonated with me:

“Make a list of all the things you ask students to do at home.  Consider which of these things have other tasks embedded in them and ask yourself whether the slower students really know how to do them.”

There was a time when I assigned spelling, Weekly Reader, or math from the day’s lesson as homework.  The return rate on the assignments wasn’t particularly good, and from an assessment standpoint, it was a nightmare.  One can’t tell what a child knows if you have no work to assess.  Mid-career,  I started following the suggested Accelerated Reader (A.R.) reading management program. I supplemented in-class reading with “homework” reading, monitored on their reading logs during the in-class Status of the Class routine.  Almost immediately,  I both increased homework completion geometrically and was able to assess student progress with near-precision. 

It seemed obvious to me that expecting students to read books that were leveled to their ability was motivating and most students exceeded the standard that I assigned.  And I was “tough.”  To earn a “B” for their nightly reading, fourth graders needed to read 40 minutes and have their reading log initialed by their parents.  Less minutes or no initials, lower credit.  It took more that the assigned task, 50 minutes or more,  to earn an “A”, because, to me, an “A” means “exceptional.”  Most of my students earned “A’s” most nights.  I made it my job to supervise scores on every A.R. test taken and make sure that students read widely based on their diagnosed reading levels.  Students were allowed some choice in book selections, but always with parameters which I set for them.

Wellingham tells us that a broad diet of reading builds background knowledge in readers, making them better readers, and likely to perform better in school because they bring more knowledge to their daily tasks. This squares well with the research that Renaissance Learning, the parent of Accelerated Reader, offers to support their program.  It was common for my fourth graders to gain two reading levels in a 180-day school year.  That increase in ability transferred well to other content areas and the all-important standardized testing each spring.  And, thanks to A.R., I never had a stack of homework papers to assess.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Twitter Profile

Reading this morning triggered in me the idea for a classroom writing assignment.  The topic current and relevant, it might well challenge students in an engaging way, while also teaching a bit of important content.  The assignment, in short, would be to ask students to write a Twitter profile.  I’m not suggesting that a classroom teacher requires students to post to Twitter or any other social site, but the task of composing a short biographical “post” is, I think, a worthy task.

I know little of Twitter and would need a 10-year-old to hold my hand through the process of posting a tweet.  In my generation, a tweet was a sound made by a bird or a car that needed lubrication.  I understand, though, that a post on Twitter is limited to 140 characters or less, including spaces and non-alphabetic characters.  Twitter profiles are limited to the same 140 characters.  Although teachers, myself included, typically urge students to elaborate (“…tell me more…” is nearly a catch-phrase for me), the idea of valuing quality and precision over quantity appeals to me.

It’s an opportunity to ask students to think, to be clear, and to experiment.  Given time to think, perhaps by allowing a day or more to pass between the assignment and the execution, and with a few examples to get students minds into the right framework, this could be a “learner.”  The assignment might be a great time to introduce both dictionary and thesaurus as a source of synonyms.  And, it would introduce and clarify “current” vocabulary, such as “profile,” “biography” or “bio,”  and “character.“  No doubt you can find even more of value here.  To boot, at 140 characters, it looks easy.  It’s something that a child might see as something that they can do and want to do.

Below, I’ve tried my hand at the process with the character count in parentheses: 

-    Heart overrules head, but head always busy.  Passion, Passion, Passion (69 characters)

  • Run, bike, golf, fish, read, ponder, write, direct, etc.  Clearly, I don’t need another hobby! (88)

  • Family first: dad (+ in-law) & grandpa.  Teacher, not first, but to my core.  Live to give. (90)

  •   A sense of humor about myself; a serious desire to positively impact each that I touch. (86)

Clearly, I’m a man of low character…..count.

Monday, January 18, 2016

What Makes a Good Reader?

What makes a good reader?

a.  Explicit phonics instruction at ages 5-7?
b.  Parents who talk to their infants early and often?
c.  Children being read to regularly?
d.  Enrichment through television, movies, and travel?
e.  Background knowledge gained by reading?
f.   All of the above?
g.  None of the above?

Clearly, “g” is not the answer.  The evidence seems to point to “f.  All of the above.”  There is no singe thing that makes a motivated, successful reader.  For example, I read recently that students enter school in kindergarten with their academic fate somewhat determined by the quality and quantity of “adult talk” that children have received prior to age 5.  Research has demonstrated that children who, from infancy, are exposed to regular conversation, enter school with a greatly enhanced “toolbox” of vocabulary, understanding, and knowledge than the child who has been primarily exposed to “business talk” (“Clean your room;” “Eat your spinach;” “Turn down the TV”).  It seems to me, that out of the list above, background knowledge may summarize what the rest of the list represents.

Recently, in a fourth grade classroom, I noticed a list on the wall detailing quarterly reading expectations for students.  In each quarter, students were expected to read four different types of literature, like history, poetry, biography, or realistic fiction.  Students were expected to read more than four works, but a variety was explicitly expected over the school year.  I was thrilled to see this.  A classroom which supports diversity in students’ reading choices supports students’ growth as learners.  I read recently that students need to have reading backgrounds that are a “… mile wide and an inch deep.”  That’s because students need to be able to understand context to read successfully.  The wider their general knowledge, the easier it will be for them to gather even more general knowledge as they read.  It’s like the way a wave spreads out from it’s original cause.

I thought the teacher’s approach was wise, however, for not dictating all students’ reading selections.  Much of what motivates us to read is our native interests.  Were we to dictate a child’s reading list, we would likely rob the child of the excitement of setting her own course and the joy of discovery.  It’s a wise teacher who helps the child grow by guiding, without controlling, students development.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Let Them Read, Help Them Read

“You need knowledge to read, and reading gives you knowledge.”  (Daniel T. Willingham, Raising Kids Who Read, p.20)

Being so excited about Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School, I’ve begun Raising Kids Who Read concurrently.  I am not, in the least, disappointed.  We always like that which confirms our biases, right?  I was an early adopter of Accelerated Reader, later a trainer for the program, and “into” it with both feet.  To this day, I have complete faith in its ability to build both competent and enthusiastic readers if a teacher uses the program as it was designed.

As I visit classrooms now, it frequently saddens me to see, in light of it’s potential power, how poorly managed the program can sometimes be.  The core of the program is daily in-class reading of “A.R. books.”  A.R. is designed to be a teacher-managed program and managed daily.  Willingham tells us that for readers to read with high comprehension, 98% of the words that they read should be familiar.  That insures that students will, typically, have sufficient background knowledge of the subject to understand what they’re reading.  Interestingly, it only takes that 2% of new vocabulary combined with the reader’s background knowledge to acquire new vocabulary, ideas, and understanding, that is, greater background knowledge.

Since looking at a book cover won’t tell a child if they have sufficient background to read a book, readability scales and book leveling is invaluable.  Staying current with children’s diagnosed reading levels and their recent success or difficulty with books near that level, a teacher can direct a child’s growth as a learner.  Research tells us that students who have read widely (a reason to avoid excessive repetition with profitable, but less-than-helpful, series books) tend to succeed at a higher rate at all educational levels.

Rather than excessive classroom reading instruction, students need help finding books in many genres which they can read successfully, allowing them to grow as readers and thinkers.  I like to call this “coaching.”  It was my experience that even my reluctant readers, with months of success, became far more enthusiastic and trusted me to help them find books that they’d enjoy.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

I'm Baaack!

A silly title?  Perhaps.  But six years have passed since I've written for others to read, so I think it fits.  Though time has passed, the passion remains undiminished.

The itch to write has been tickling for quite some time.  Retired now, with lots of time for professional reading, just about everything I see or do stimulates another "deep" thought about education.  Consequently, the goal will be to post a modest three posts a week, hoping to create a dialogue with teachers who, like me, think that contemporary education can be improved.  If you comment, I promise that your ideas will be accepted sincerely.

 I realize that in describing what I see as "new" frontiers will necessitate characterizing what I see as "here and now."  This takes me into the land of both paper tigers and denial, descriptions to which readers may say: "It's not really like that..." or "Some classrooms are like that, but not mine."    If you feel that way, say so, but also describe what you see or feel is the current state of the classroom or at least your classroom.  We're all learners here.

A bit of modesty is in order.  Not even for a moment do I think the ideas that are put forth here represent "truth" in any eternal sense.  Quite the contrary, they may be the impulsive musings and wanderings of a brain that refuses to be disciplined, much like a few of the personalities that populate your classrooms.  What they do represent, though, is a sincere effort to give value to both students and teachers by passing along the ideas garnered from, or those stimulated by reading books and articles that classroom teachers would likely not have the time to select and read.  Every effort will be made to make clear the source of the ideas, so that readers can explore those ideas in their original form, if they so desire.

So, please read. Please pass the link along to peers who you think might be interested.  Disagree and write back to say so, creating a dialogue which clarifies what we believe and what we know to be true and helpful.  I sincerely hope that my efforts help you make your work in the classroom more rewarding and successful.