Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Learning Styles Revisited

Recently, I reported that there is virtually no comprehensive research that supports the “learning styles” theory.  Actually, there are a huge variety of learning style theories which posit varying numbers of styles across an equally varying number of domains.  Brown, et al., in Make It Stick, being good scientists, qualify their assessment of these theories to say that there is no credible evidence for the theories, they admit that there are so many theories that few have been rigorously tested.  They do, however, offer us a terrific insight into what does have support.

Instruction that matches the mode of the subject with the mode of instruction does have a positive effect on learning.  Visual instruction for geometry, geography, or art history, for example  is most appropriate.  Verbal instruction in language arts would be the preferred mode.  It’s hard to imagine teaching any sport without having participants actually engage in that sport.  Research shows that all learners benefit by matching the mode of instruction to the topic taught.  That is a powerful piece of knowledge for the teacher. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ditch the Textbook?

Taken together, my posts point in at least one obvious direction:  it is abundantly clear in the literature of cognitive science that learners need to read - a lot!  Reading gives learners fluency which shows up in their speech and writing as well as oral reading.  When I direct students in musicals, it is the enthusiastic readers who typically earn the major parts.  They understand characters.  As I’ve reported before, readers, particularly those who’ve been encouraged or directed to read a variety of genres, build far greater background knowledge which they can then bring to a multitude of tasks both in and out of school.  I’ve even read that there is research that suggests a positive relationship between reading and improved math skills.

All that said, I find it altogether too common that classrooms don’t have time for reading.  There’s time for teaching reading, but little for reading.  Reading, I’ve been told, is what students are supposed to do when they go home;  there isn’t time in school for reading.  It is my fundamental conviction that once the code has been taught, most likely by the end of second grade at the latest, the foundation of reading in school should be reading, not instruction.  This is where the title of this post comes in.  If teachers are masters of their craft, then they know what’s taught in the reading curriculum and they can teach it, when it’s most appropriate, when students are engaged with their reading.

There is a popular blogger whose blog is titled “Ditch the Textbook.”  I borrowed my title from him, not because I wholly endorse eliminating textbooks, but because I think that textbook work can be trimmed - a lot - in favor of students practicing the fundamental skills that they need.  I’ve mentioned before the Accelerated Reader routine of “status of the class” where the teacher visits each child during the reading period and interacts with each student about their reading.  The interaction is, in a manner of speaking, a coaching session.  Progress and effort are noted.  The student’s current book is discussed and “teaching” takes place during the conversation.  New books are suggested or required.  It’s instruction, assessment on the fly, and warm personal contact on a daily basis.  Never did I have a class that did not, on a whole class basis, average a growth of less than two reading levels in a school year.  Students wanted to read and the classroom supported all student reading levels with hundreds of books in the classroom library.  They read books that they wanted to read, quite often within parameters set by me.  And, most became independent, enthusiastic readers who needed very little direction to maintain their reading both at school and at home.

Friday, April 22, 2016

ZPD: A Heuristic With Merit

"On any list of differences that matter most for learning, the level of language fluency and reading ability will be at or near the top. While some kinds of difficulties that require increased cognitive effort can strengthen learning, not all difficulties we face have that effect. If the additional effort required to overcome the deficit does not contribute to more robust learning, it’s not desirable. An example is the poor reader who cannot hold onto the thread of a text while deciphering individual words in a sentence."

Brown, Peter C. (2014-04-14). Make It Stick (p. 141). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition. 

Reading the passage above reminded me of one of the central concepts in the Accelerated Reader “system”:  “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD.  A.R. urges teachers to carefully supervise student reading so that students read in range which allows for lots of practice at a comfortable level and a moderate and well-controlled amount of challenge.  If a child’s ability to read and remember text  is limited to, say, Magic Treehouse books, a Harry Potter book would not be a successful read, educationally speaking, no matter how much the child wanted to be like her peers and read the longer book.  

Throughout my career in the classroom, I kept the ZPD concept close at hand for all tasks.  No matter what the lesson of the day was in the math book, students who didn’t firmly understand its antecedents was not going to understand today’s lesson.  It’s one of classroom teaching’s greatest challenges:  how do you teach to the group when part of the group isn’t ready for what you’re teaching?

While I don’t have the answer to the question, I can urge teachers to keep the ZPD concept firmly in mind and to look for ways to individualize instruction whenever and wherever possible.  Brown follows the above passage with a discussion of identifying the strengths of individuals who are struggling and helping the learner define and rely on those strengths.  For example, research has shown that dyslexics, while struggling with the nuts and bolts of text, are often quite adept at understanding the big picture, that is, major concepts.  It becomes our mission, therefore, to identify what a child can do, build on it, and affirm it.  It will be that child’s strength throughout life.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Teaching or Learning?

A recent conversation with an educator got me thinking about how my role as an educator both in the classroom and as a frequent volunteer “felt” different than the way this teacher articulated her role.  As close as I can come to what I’m feeling is that to one degree or another, teachers differ on a dimension which I will call teaching/learning.

There are those whose focus is primarily on teaching.  They deliver lessons, they demonstrate, they assign, and they assess, which usually means assigning a grade.  Those who focus on learning, assess, assign, may give mini-lessons, and give information sparingly.  The learning focused ask many questions and, rather than giving answers, give key bits of information.

Of course, no teacher is all “teaching oriented”, nor all “learning oriented.”  It’s something of a continuum.  What I see as key here is the placement of assessment.  Is an assessment as summary judgement or is it an exploration of the frontiers of a child’s world?  Is education curriculum centric or is it learning centric?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bulletin: Learning Styles

Although well-entrenched in the “lore” of education, and in quarters like the business world as well, there is no comprehensive research that supports the idea that people have learning styles which determine the best way for them to learn new skills or material.  Rather, individuals may well have learning preferences, possibly the result of prior learning and experience or genetic factors which make certain forms of sensory input more comfortable or desirable.  The degree or balance of nurture and nature affecting preferences notwithstanding, acquiring new knowledge or skills is far more dependent on prior knowledge and experience than preference.  For the teacher this means that new learning must build on what the student already knows and can do, not on the mode in which new instruction is delivered.  See Make it Stick, p. 141.

Does It Stick?

We all embrace habits.   That is, we do today what we did yesterday, and the day before that, and the year before that.   We feel consistent, comfortable, content that what we’re doing is the best way to do it.  It’s called the “illusion of knowing” and it’s abundantly clear this political season.  Read the letters to the editor in your local newspaper.  Folks are convinced that they know the “absolute truth” and that anyone who think differently is hopelessly deluded.  It’s almost comical.  Yet we, as teachers, have pretty strong habits in the classroom.  

It is a well-documented fact that our brains are organized, first and foremost, to repeat over-learned tasks with great proficiency.  Thinking is hard, and changing habits or creating new ones is painfully difficult.  It’s why I’m having so much trouble getting rid of that “last 10 pounds” that I so want to burn off.  If I’m good at anything, snacking has to be at the top of my list.

Over the course of my recent blog entries, I hope I’ve given you cause to rethink some of your favorite routines.  Do you need to change?  Probably not.  Would you benefit from change?  Quite likely.  Have you changed any routines? Have you created any new and different assignments?  Have you oriented your teaching to be more “student thinking” directed with less of a “correct answer”  orientation?  Are your students reading more?

Once, a very long time ago, I knew a real estate agent who frequently said, “Let’s throw it agains the wall and see if it sticks.”  I loved the idea.  Why not give a new idea a test and see what happens?  Worst case scenario:  “…never do that again.”  Interestingly, most new ideas are not complete failures.  Seldom are they unqualified successes either.  Success or failure (relatively speaking), wisdom is the by-product.  I”m confident that, like your students, you’ll learn more from your relative failures than you ever could from your familiar routines.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Curse of Knowing

Recently, I suggested that teachers need to teach less and listen more.  Skill is to some extent unique and idiosyncratic.  That is, the mental models that we use to solve problems are the sum of our experiences in solving similar problems, combined with the unique background knowledge the makes up our personal experience.  Our students, having neither those specific experiences and widely different background knowledge will, eventually, come to own similar skills, but with different mental models.  For our purposes, though, as teachers, we simply need to understand that it’s not our wisdom in solving that type of problem that will guide the student to learn the new skill, it’s our understanding of what they know and don’t yet know that will define their path to success.

Classroom questioning too often is aimed at getting the “right” answer to a knowledge question.  I think that the nature of the questions must change.  Since it’s difficult for a teacher to go back in time and accurately remember learning a skill, the questions must focus on what the child knows and what the child can guess about how to solve a problem.  They must be real and focused in present tense.  Questions like, “How is this problem like something else you’ve run into before?” or “How do you think you might solve this?” or “What do you know about the problem so far?” are all questions which can guide the student to develop strategies for solving the problem and gaining skill.  Another tack might be to find a student who can solve the problem and ask them how they have solved it, not, to find a “canned” solution that other students can memorize, but as a window to the level of sophistication on which other students are operating.

Teaching is a full-contact sport.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Who’s Doing the Learning?

Quite a long time ago in my career, I head a speaker, I think it was Harry Wong, say that when you walked into the classroom, you could tell who was doing the most learning by who was doing the most talking.  I thought of that  often in my classroom and did my best to give tasks and then flow around the room coaching students as they dealt with their work.

Today, I read a blog entry on Linkedin-Plus which reminded me of this bit of wisdom.  The article made the point that if you want the very best thinking and creativity from your employees (students) that you have to become a listener, not a “leader.”  It made me think about how much a teacher can learn by giving up on the “…so much to teach…” mindset and adopting one of becoming proficient at hearing what students know and what they need to know.

As I’ve mentioned before, background knowledge is the foundation of learning.  As teachers, we know somewhere in out psyche that our students don’t always have all the background to accomplish that next task on our lesson plans.  If they did, they either wouldn’t need us or our lesson is specious.  But picture looking out at your class.  They have different needs.  If you buy into the picture I’m painting, you see that “teaching” in the traditional sense is like shooting a shotgun in the dark.  It might hit something, but a lot of the shot is going to fall to the ground spent.  Think instead of asking a struggling student:  “Why do you think that?”  The answer to that question is your clue to the student’s missing background knowledge.  Fill in that puzzle piece and the student can unite their current knowledge with the task at hand.

Becoming a “listening teacher” can accomplish two goals.  First, the teacher, by listening, can provide that critical piece of background knowledge at precisely that time when a student really needs it, at the time when it MAKES the connection for that student.  Second, the teacher, by listening, learns the kinds of gaps students have in learning a new concept or skill and hones incredibly valuable instructional skills for the future.

It’s my theory that all too often we all make the incorrect assumption that the way we understand something is the way our students will understand it.  But with each of us having different and quite unique knowledge “gaps,” the path to understanding is personal and unique.  If a teacher can explore an individual student’s path, the teacher can remove the stress of not knowing and facilitate the joy of “getting it.”

Sunday, April 3, 2016

More On Testing

I’m currently reading Make It Stick by Peter Brown.  Perhaps you read “Teaching With the Test” a few posts back.  I’m very excited about the potential for quizzing as a tool for teaching, but continue to wrestle with the mechanics of how one does it and still preserves instructional time.  After all, we already feel as if there’s too much to teach for the time available as it is.  How do we ADD testing to that?

One legitimate argument might be that if our instructional organization is more effective, we will pick up time with efficiency.  I think that’s likely.  Although I considered it a point of pride each year to make sure I made it through the reading and math texts, I was aware that many did not.  And, I have little proof that “making it through” resulted in better learning.  That said, it may be okay to come up short on breadth to improve the quality of student retention of the material that was taught.

I’ve already revised my idea of a 4-5 item quiz at the end of math period.  What I now advocate is a 2 problem quiz at the beginning of the period, and a single problem at the end.  The first quiz would probe recent material, the latter would be a check on the day’s work.  Checking could be done by classmates, or quickly on a white board by the student herself.  The early quizzes could likely be scanned during class and errors often quickly addressed during class.  Or, again, the “quiz” could be a series of problems given to students working on white boards.  A teacher moving around the room could address some review difficulties and note, when the students raise their boards, any students with needs.  The single problem could be scanned when convenient.  It turns out that immediate feedback is not the ideal way to address errors.  A short space of time between the error and it’s correction improves learning, though researchers are not quite sure why.  The thought is that immediate feedback diminishes personal responsibility for the effort.

In reading class, quizzing needs to reflect the structure of the lesson.  If it is whole-class, written questioning is better, though this might be best achieved by the class doing a bit of reading, 1-4 paragraphs, say, and then a written answer to a question about the text.  For small group instruction, oral questioning might be sufficient to insure continued student effort.  Effort is key.  Regardless of group size, a short quiz at the end of the period or the beginning of the next will likely help retention.  In one research study, a final, larger quiz the day before the “test” was used with high success.  Understand that the material on the quiz and the material on the test can differ.  The quizzes work to solidify the learning as a whole, not just isolate a few facts.