Thursday, March 31, 2016

THE Low-Cost Airline

Herb Kelleher was the driving force behind Southwest Airlines back when it was growing from a fringe regional air carrier to the powerhouse that it has become today.  I read once that when one of his employees suggested that they could add a particular service to their operation, he asked,  “How will that help us be THE low-cost airline?”  You see, he insisted that above everything else, Southwest was “THE low-cost airline.”  It worked pretty well for him and for Southwest.

Have you ever read your school’s mission statement?  I’ve read a few in my time.  To be honest, I can’t begin to recite even a part of one that I’ve read.  No doubt, they’re the product of great discussion, full of wonderful ideas and ideals.  But, I think, they may be lacking the singleminded imperative, and thus the driving force, that Herb Kelleher’s mission statement expresses.

What I’m suggesting is that every school, at every level, should have a short, relatively inflexible, mission statement.  It should be so clear that every decision could be evaluated against it and the direction would be clear.  Take a statement like, “Our purpose is to teach every student to be a learner.”  I chose my example because of my recent study of what’s known about learning from the cognitive sciences.  When I ran the idea by a teacher-friend, he said that he liked, “We make every student feel successful.”

With “Our purpose is to teach every student to be a learner…”  as a mission statement, we’d ask of any subject, program, or activity, “…how does it make our students better learners?”  New curriculum, old favorites, and external programs would have to pass the filter of the school’s mission statement.  It might mean that some old favorites would have to be rewritten in such a way that not only content was being taught, but it was being taught in a way that taught learners how to learn as well.  Or, if that wasn’t possible then the old favorite would have to be abandoned, not because it wasn’t in some way a positive for kids, but because it just didn’t fit the mission of the school.

Understand that I’m not saying that schools should rush to embrace “my” mission statement.  What I am saying is that a mission statement should be short and abundantly clear.  All members of the school community should buy in. Then, all members should be willing to make sure that everything that is taught clearly passes the scrutiny of the school’s mission.  Every member should be able to both recite the mission statement, to explain it, and to justify any curriculum within the dictates of that statement.  That would truly change education.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Mental Models

Mental Models

On several occasions, I’ve mentioned “effortful retrieval” as key to longterm learning.  I think that if I were to criticize myself  as a classroom teacher, I’d have to say that failure to review was a primary weakness in my teaching repertoire.  The key is too allow enough time to pass between study sessions that some forgetting has taken place, but not so much that competing memories have completely obliterated the retrieval routes to a learning.  Take a math fact.  Taught today, it should be reviewed tomorrow or the next day, then after about 5 days, then 10, then about 20 days, and after that, at random.  For the “average” person, this would be adequate for making the memory of a math fact or vocabulary word, reasonably permanent.

Repeated retrieval causes the brain to strengthen the routes of recovery, making them more resilient.  As we retrieve learning, we also improve it by reconsolidating it.  That is, we combine that knowledge or skill with newer information and skills, literally remaking the memory into a richer and stronger understanding.  Bit by bit, as we revisit memories we not only reconsolidate that specific memory, but we develop mental models.

Mental models, as distinct from a reconsolidated memory, might be thought of as clusters of memories.  A simple example might be related to driving a car.  When we learn to drive, individual skills like breaking or shifting become reconsolidated as we do them repeatedly and gain sophistication with their use, applying the skills to new and slightly different situations.  At some point, we move from “breaking” or “steering” or “shifting” to “driving a car.”  At that point, we’ve developed a mental model of driving a car and it contains all the separate skills necessary for driving.  With that model, we can move from vehicle to vehicle, applying our model with great skill.

So it is with learning.  It’s why we try to get students to recall things “like” what we’re introducing in class.  The attempt is to see the new information within the model students have already developed.  Research says that if we probe students for “What is it like?” rather than telling them what it’s like, the effort that they expend identifying the model will strengthen the learning and make it more resilient.

Friday, March 25, 2016

“You become a winner because you’re good at losing.” - Seth Godin

You know that “Ah-ha moment?”  It was an epiphany for me.  Upon reading it I instantly recognized that we’re all losers.  We lose all the time.  To be human is to make mistakes, lots of mistakes, little ones and big ones.  But if we’re good at losing, if we pay attention when we fail, we learn and make progress toward being a winner.  And, of course, the descriptors “winner” and “loser” are misnomers to begin with.  More appropriate would be terms like “progressors” and “quitters,” recognizing the on-going nature of effort.

What can we do with this thought?  Surely we’ve all exhorted our students to persist with their learning… or have we, really.  If we test and give a score which recognizes only relative success and failure, are we not sending another message?  So what if we do the opposite?  Suppose we thank kids for their effort on the test and openly point out what “we still need to work on”  and then set about working on it.

In no way am I trivializing the difficulty of doing this.  Most typically, students’ performance on any task distributes like the bell curve.  Some do very well, some do very poorly, most to an adequate job, but show signs of minor need.

I think that this underscores the need to create tasks that, whenever possible, challenge kids at their ability level.  While particularly difficult in math, it is not so difficult in other subjects.  Writing prompts can be given so that students may bring current skills and knowledge to bear on the task.  I’ve written often about the Accelerated Reader’s ability to challenge students at their current ability level.  Even when working from a basal, questions that tap the “What do you think?” and “Why do you think that?” domains challenge kids to bring what they already possess “to the table” in examining reading selections and yet be challenged to go a bit further.

Without a doubt, the final piece of the puzzle is the teacher.  To personalize the learning experience and support growth, the teacher must find the means to interact with each student, making sure that the student is challenged to do just a bit more, to go just a bit farther.  And, if this challenging mentality is displayed publicly in the classroom, the example will be set for all.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Learning Math Facts

As I continue my investigation into cognitive science, I continue to run into the concept of “distributed practice,” sometimes called “spaced” practice.  One of my passions for a long time has been helping students learn their math facts.  Over the years, I’ve tried several approaches to teaching students their facts, with mixed results.  What follows is a suggestion based both on my recent experiences and my readings in cognitive science.

This will be a whole-class activity.  Begin with a numbered set of math fact drill cards (I have a homemade set to offer. See below).  Select 5 cards, one for each day of the week.  On Monday, present the first fact card and ask students to repeat the fact both ways (6+5=11 and 5+6=11).  After this introduction, find 5 or 6 opportunities on Monday to quiz the class on the first fact.  On Tuesday, present a new fact.  On Tuesday, your 5 or 6 later quizzes should include both Monday’s and Tuesday’s facts.  Repeat Wednesday through Friday.  In like manner, keep introducing the “fact of the day” through the next week.  At this point you will have introduced 10 facts and will be quizzing 10 facts.  On the second Friday, give an assessment to see which of the 10 facts have been learned.  Learned facts go into a separate stack to be randomly quizzed from time to time (perhaps once a week), just to keep students “sharp.”  

Keep adding daily cards to the “quiz stack” until you reach 10 facts.  You now have 3 stacks:  1.  new cards; 2. quiz stack; 3.  mastered cards.  Avoid letting the quiz stack get beyond about 12 cards.  Stop introducing until you can reduce the quiz stack to less than 10 cards.  Stop introducing if you can’t transfer cards from the quiz stack to the mastered stack.  An easy assessment would be done orally, giving just 10-20 problems combining recently added facts and those previously mastered- no fancy form needed.  Just use lined paper.

Because the introductions and daily quizzing would be very quick, it’d make a good transition activity.  I’ve written the above as succinctly as possible, so if anything is not clear, feel free to contact me:

Also, if you’d like a set of homemade flash card masters for addition and multiplication, send me an email and I’ll send you .pdf format masters.  They include numbered back-to-back masters which can be copied on to 8.5x11 cardstock to make serviceable flash cards for this activity.  If you’d like, of course, you could copy off additional sets for students who want them.

Again, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

More Neuroscience

This would be my normal end-of-the-week post.  I'm headed out of town for some fishing and won't be home 'til the weekend.

I am not a neuroscientist.  I am, nonetheless, fascinated by what neuroscientists have learned about our brains and how they learn.  Currently, I’m reading Make It Stick, by Peter C. Brown.  The aim of the book is to apply what is known in neuroscience to the domain of education.  it’s already had a huge impact on me.

No doubt you know the old Chinese saying:  “Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he'll feed himself for the rest of his life.”  Make it Stick lays a huge emphasis on the importance of self-testing as a technique for learning new material.  Depending on the material, self-testing can take many forms.  If learning materials, let’s say a textbook, offer study aids like key concepts or chapter questions, students who want to learn the material need to define those concepts and answer those questions - from memory first, then study after.  Doing so will allow the student to consolidate what they know and accurately assess what they don’t.  While there is no fault in taking notes as one reads, it’s a fallacy to read through notes and assume that one is learning the material.  Because the notes are familiar, the student is more likely to think that the material is learned, however, research has shown that memory from this study approach diminishes to 10%-20% in as little as two weeks.  Notes, tied to prior knowledge will have a greater likelihood of consolidating new learning.

I would guess that students would need to be guided over and over to embrace this technique.  I would also guess that a teacher must make very explicit to students that they are learning a study technique which has been shown by research to be more effective than simple re-reading or reading one’s notes.  It is the repeated retrieval of information from memory that strengthens both the memory, it’s relationship to other known information, and the neural pathways to that information.  So, I’d ask students to answer questions.  What they can’t answer, I’d ask for them to go back to the material and find the answer.  Then, several days later, I’d ask them to answer the questions again.  It’s likely that, bit by bit, they’d really LEARN the material.  And, over time, with persistence of perhaps several teacher at succeeding grades, students would embrace a study skill that will feed them for the rest of their lives.

By the way, I’ve discovered that the above information about studying is not just for our students.  It’s making a profound and immediate impact on my ability to understand and assimilate all the new material I’m reading.  I suspect it might do the same for you.  Besides, we teach best what we know best.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Brain Apps.

This entry is a "bonus."  Thanks to the rainy weather, I'm reading a lot and getting inspired as I do:

I’m loving my reading of Make It Stick, by Peter Brown, and I encourage every educator to read it.  Understand, it’s not a warm and fuzzy read.  It is literally what I call, “…two feet on the floor, at the kitchen table…” reading.  It’s been fun for me, though, because with it, I’m practicing what science tells me is good learning:  I’m drafting review questions, studying it in spaced sessions, returning to what I’ve done previously, tying what I’m learning to what I already know, and, here, writing about what I’m learning.  No doubt, the book will spawn many blog entries.

Brown says that the result of deep and purposeful learning is what he typifies as “brain apps.”  His example is driving a car, but driving a golf ball would apply as well.  At first, all the many skills of driving are nearly overwhelming.  Perhaps this is why young drivers have a comparatively poor record with insurance companies.  But, with thousands of hours of actually driving a car, skills like speed control, lane placement, awareness of dangers, and braking become semi-automatic.  I’ve driven cars and trucks with a manual transmissions for fifty years and I seldom think about what gear I’m in or how to manage a clutch.   But, it’s recently become obvious to me that an automatic transmission is a challenge to me because, for someone who’s used to a stick shift, an automatic is NOT automatic.

Think of what this means for classroom education.  So many of the skills that seems so obviously “easy” to us are, to young students,  like the 16 year-old learning to keep a car in the center of the lane.  Even when they “get” a skill like “borrowing” in subtraction, it is, at first, an isolated and uncomfortable operation, not the seamlessly integrated part of a more general “Subtraction Brain App” that it will someday become.  In time, countless subtraction situations, practice with operations, and the arithmetic facts that support the computations, will coalesce into the “idea” of subtraction which will be more like the refined skill which we attempt to teach.

My point?  I think we need to patiently disaggregate our understanding of the things we teach, attempting to remember how we arrived at our present skill.  Regardless of any pressure we feel to show that our kids are meeting the current set of standards that some political or administrative entity has drafted for us, it’s important to understand how learning takes place.   We can provided distributed practice.  We can look for simple links to students’ lives and experiences to tie current learning to their prior knowledge.  Most importantly, we can provided reassurance that learning is long range, not immediate.

Any attempts to hurry up the process or learning are likely to lead to some short-term successes - think “cramming” for the test - but long-term failures when, without measured repetition, the learning never achieves the status of “Brain App.” 


Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with a school administrator.  Understand at the outset, I was never the darling of the administrators that I worked under.  So, it comes as no surprise to me that the conversation did nothing to change my opinion of administrators.

The topic of our conversation was one of the school’s programs that I felt was being poorly implemented because of lack of training.  I had every confidence in the program itself if teachers simply had sufficient background in the procedures of the program, their purpose, and the research that supported the materials and routines.

The administrator’s response was predictable.  Staff was “studying” all the school’s programs to see which programs teachers supported.  After due study teachers would recommend which programs should be continued and which abandoned.  Nowhere did I hear of any research into the effectiveness of the programs.  Nothing was said about contacting experts, training, reading supporting research, or asking for presentations from representatives.  To my credit, I remained passive.

Teachers are very busy people and so mired down in the “day to day” that it is the natural way of most programs over time that they get reduced to their “manageable” bare bones.  Teachers seldom have time to read the research supporting new or even adopted programs. Over my years in the classroom, I’ve seen this time and again, particularly with math and science programs. And yet, it is precisely those materials which make clear the purpose of the prescript routines, their research bases, and the assumptions which underlie their choice.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Permit me a short personal "giggle."  It amazes me that I find so much to say in this space.  My two-day-a-week schedule doesn't permit me to publish all of the pages I have written.  I encourage you to find your voice and publish your ideas as well.  You, too, may find that your passion exceeds the format.

Linchpin by Seth Godin

The following is a review I posted on Amazon, but wrote for both audiences:

I really wanted to like this book.  After all, who wouldn’t feel good when someone tells them that they could be - should be and are - an artist or a genius?  Such is the premise of Linchpin.  Beginning with that as a premise, Mr. Godin spins an argument for all of us to become indispensable in our chosen fields.  

Personally, I favor books with a strong research base and primarily inductive reasoning.  Given a relatively large number of studies, certain generalizations can be made with a reasonable level of confidence.  As a retired teacher, still committed to better understand all the factors which bear on achievement in life, Mr. Godin’s book attracted me.  Sadly, what I found was a deductive work with sometimes seriously lacking scholarship.

If we are all geniuses under the skin, Mr. Godin, postulates, then there must be some evil forces conspiring to prevent us from achieving our potential.  In the case of Linchpin, those forces are several:  the “old” American creed of hard work without complaining, a mind-numbing educational system, and our limbic brain.  Readers are even told that if they disagree with the major argument here, it’s the resistance of our “lizard” brain.  This made me think of the emperor’s new clothes.

The problem I have with many inspirational works is that they fail to recognize the complexity of people’s interactions with the outside world.  The educational system, my area of particular interest, for example, is not nearly as constricting as Mr. Grodin would have you to believe.  The individual’s interaction with the world at large is quite complex and depends heavily on traits possessed both through birth and early development, circumstances like family social class and community, and chance events.  Even Mr. Godin recognizes that some individuals who shouldn’t end up expressing their genius in powerful ways.

Though I agree that there is indeed genius in each of us waiting to be realized, I would urge individuals to do their homework before rushing out to show the world their artistic brilliance.  As a teacher, I’d certainly urge teachers to do their best to learn what actions on their part have the greatest impact on showing students that they are capable of great achievement.  There’s a very low likelihood that telling individuals that they’re capable of great things, but guiding them toward expressing it has potential… and a research base that can be learned.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Easy Day Starter

I’m guessing that most teachers have an assignment that begins the classroom day, allowing the teacher time to take roll and lunch count.  For me, it was Daily Oral Language.  I had transferred sentences which needed editing to my own masters so that one master lasted all week.  Students edited the sentences and then, when I was ready, we corrected them orally.  I suppose, as beginning assignments go, it was acceptable.  Based on my current reading, though, I have a different idea.

Later in my classroom career, I came to believe that many assignments in the classroom were, to the teacher, easy or “do-able” that weren’t necessarily so for all the students in the class.  You see, I think that we all fall victim to the notion that things which are simple to us are also simple to our students, when too often they aren’t.  If I’m correct about that, what should a teacher do to give students work that requires a bit of thought, but doesn’t defeat students.  Nearly 100 years ago Lev Vygotsky developed the concept of “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) to go along with Piaget’s idea that a child’s development proceeds on it’s own pace.  The idea behind ZPD is that children learn best when the tasks they are given are near their current level of development and that task which are too advanced for a child’s current skills result in no permanent learning.  Add to this the knowledge from brain science that skills must be practiced at regular intervals to become permanent and I think we can see the requirements for good assignments.

What I propose for a classroom starter activity is to write a single “good” sentence each morning.  If the topic of the sentence is engaging and background knowledge appropriate for the age of the students, more than one objective can be met in the simple assignment.  What I propose is asking a daily question which must be answered in one sentence.  Were I assigning it, I’d probably draft a week’s worth of questions and hand them out on Monday so that students could read all the week’s questions and get their brains working on each of the ideas on which they’ll write.  Questions might be something like:  “What makes someone a friend?”; or “What could make school better?”  Experience would teach the teacher which questions are the most fruitful.  After the few minutes that it took for the teacher to take roll, the teacher could ask two or three students to read their sentences, and allow a few others who really want to read theirs.  By my experience, I’m guessing that the volunteers would be numerous.

Assessment would be twofold.  First, if a student read a sentence which was incorrect, a bit of immediate coaching could take place.  Second, at the end of the week, the teacher would have a concrete example of each student’s thinking, sophistication in expressing it, and ability to draft complete, and perhaps complex, sentences.  Having current examples of student work would allow the teacher to mentor all students quickly and one-on-one: the stronger students could be encouraged to develop new patterns of expression, while weaker students could be coached to improve on their greatest needs.

As I’ve reported earlier, all students need a deep well of common knowledge to think creatively and to enhance their learning.  Think of skills and knowledge like a pyramid.  As we grow and develop, it is on a base of broad background knowledge.  The sentence-writing would allow students to practice fundamental writing skills and to practice accessing their background knowledge in a creative endeavor.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Teach With the Test

Thanks to my current reading, I’ve developed a whole new perspective on testing.  I’m not talking about THE TEST particularly, but even that has been reframed in my mind.  What I am thinking of is more like what we usually call a quiz, but it is really quite structured.

It turns out that we forget a great deal of what we learn, 70% - 80% in the first two weeks, if we don’t do something with it to make learning more permanent.  When we retrieve previous learning, we strengthen the neural connections that make up that knowledge or skill.  Conversely, when we make no effort to retrieve a particular learning, the neural connections weaken and atrophy.  Research has shown that if we test ourselves over a series of intervals about knowledge that we wish to make permanent, the memory gets stronger and more resistant to loss.  Simply rereading the material has little effect.  It’s the recall effort that’s important.

So, if we want our students to really learn what we’re teaching, it’s important to quiz them on the material more than once, or, if the students are older, teach them how to test themselves on material that they’re supposed to be learning.  Actually, it’s quite easy to see how this works.  For example, a pilot has a huge amount of knowledge and skills that must be immediately available for both routine and emergency operation of an airplane.  Modern pilots spend a huge amount of time practicing in simulators, in essence, quizzing them on the skills that they must have at their immediate command.  They must certify and re-certify that they have command of those skills.  So it is with doctors, surgeons, race car drivers, and even baseball hitters.  The need for immediate unconscious response is the same.  Flash cards are a good example in education.

In the classroom, such quizzing in math might take the form of 4-5 problems given daily which probe both recent and slightly more distant lesson material.  I can picture giving the quiz, having students trade papers, quickly checking the work, then asking the pair to get together on any missed problems with the teacher available if the pair can’t figure out and correct errors.  In language arts, such quizzing might focus on simple skills, like writing complete sentences or demonstrating comprehension of a passage, repeated over and over again to make them habit.  The goal would particularly be to make foundation learning skills automatic.  It turns out that it’s quite impossible to think creatively until one has a background of knowledge and skills with which to create.  Testing can help students retrieve those skills and knowledge when they need them.