If it doesn’t look radically different, you’re not really doing it.

I attended a workshop earlier in the year regarding NGSS instruction, and something that was flashed on the presenter’s screen has stuck with me every since:

If instruction doesn’t look radically different, you’re not really doing it.

I think this is true regarding a lot of what’s seen in education today. We think we’re innovating, doing things differently, but we’re really doing the same old things in the same old context using the same thinking we’ve been using for the last 100+ years in education.

“Well, we do that…but we do it this way.”

“We started doing that, but we can’t do a lot of it because of all the content we have to cover.”

“We can only do it this way because our test scores may suffer.”

Test scores will be fine.  Students will learn what they are supposed to learn (and a lot of what’s in content standards they will never need for their lives, anyway).  If we really want to students to do real learning, we have to get beyond the obstacles we think are in our way under the traditional system and starting doing things the way they need to be done for real learning to happen.

And that means doing things radically differently.


Confusion for deeper learning


From John Spencer’s recent post “Should school be more confusing?”, where he quotes Ann Murphy Paul regarding confusion in learning:

“We short-circuit this process of subconscious learning, however, when we rush in too soon with an answer. It’s better to allow that confused, confounded feeling to last a little longer—for two reasons. First, not knowing the single correct way to resolve a problem allows us to explore a wide variety of potential explanations, thereby giving us a deeper and broader sense of the issues involved. Second, the feeling of being confused, of not knowing what’s up, creates a powerful drive to figure it out. We’re motivated to look more deeply, search more vigorously for a solution, and in so doing we see and understand things we would not have, had we simply been handed the answer at the outset.”

As I discussed in a previous post, this is a new mental model for some teachers.  They will have to unlearn the “my job is to make learning easy” model and adopt the “it’s OK if students are confused” model.  The main issue I see with this is that sense of loss that teachers will feel – a loss of feeling needed, a loss of feeling like they are “teaching” if they’re not the ones in the front of the room leading every single minute of class time and marching students through a series of steps and activities that make logical sense to us but where the students are going through the motions, not making connections because all of the thinking has been done for them.

What we have to remember is that learning doesn’t happen when we’re the ones talking at students; students can only learn when they’re doing the work of learning.  And that work involves setting up those confusing mysteries, student dialogue, mistake-making experiences that students have to do and explore.

That work happens outside of the classroom.  Inside the classroom, students are doing the work rather than watching teachers do their jobs, encountering confusion and learning deeper in the process.

It’s a lot of work for both students and teachers – but, again, it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be worth it.

Help students be good at life.

Below is a quote from this KQED MindShift article titled “Why Academic Teaching Doesn’t Help Kids Excel in Life:”

Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.” And what is that? In the Biology curriculum that I’ve taught for the past several years, one of the objectives that my students need to know is earthworm reproduction. Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?

I am one of 5 siblings, and I am the only one who entered public education as a long-term career.  My brother works in construction, my twin sister works for a major IT company, another sister own her own karate studio, and yet another sister is a police officer.

Not one of them needs or has ever needed to know or use 95% of what I taught my 9th graders when I was teaching high school science.  And I’m pretty sure most of my students didn’t need most of what I taught them either.

So why do we teach what we teach? (Back to those pesky “why” questions…)

Most of what we teach is mandated to us in the form of standards that are mostly what academics need to know.  How we teach that academic stuff most of the time, unfortunately, only teaches students how to be good at school.

We can do better.

At the end of the article, the author (a teacher) suggests a more constructivist approach, with students answering these three questions in her classroom:

  • What are you going to learn?
  • How are you going to learn it?
  • How are you going to show me you’re learning?

Imagine what powerful learning can happen if classrooms were focused around those three questions using mandated standards as a vehicle for this learning.  Imagine the ownership, not only of ideas and concepts, but over the process of learning that can happen in classrooms set up around those three questions.  Imagine how many students will find their passions in life answering these questions (and think about how many of your students found their passions filling out a worksheet or taking a multiple-choice test).

Imagine. Then make it a reality.

Yes, we have to teach certain stuff that students will never ever need or use. But no one says we have to teach it like we’ve been teaching for the past 100+ years or so.  Let’s start teaching so students will be good at life.


Teach students to be capable, not dependent

My husband, a school superintendent, always had trouble with math classes when he was in school.  He didn’t do all that great during his high school math classes, and almost didn’t graduate from college during his undergraduate days because of a required college math class he took 4 times before finally passing it right before his graduation. He always said that the way they taught math in school from books, with those big sheets of problems, just never made sense to him.  Which is funny, because a) he has his Chief School Business Official designation and is a master of school finance, and b) he taught drafting and construction and small gas engines and other career and technical education classes that require a good amount of math.  Whenever I remind him of those things, he just shrugs and says, “Well, that math made sense because it’s hooked into something I am actually doing; it’s not a big sheet of problems.”

I passed all of my high school math classes with at least a B, sometimes As if it involved any geometry, which I loved.  I even passed the required math test my college gave before starting my undergraduate degree so I could opt out of the freshman math class everyone usually had to take.  The way they taught math in schools made perfect sense to me-find the formula or series of steps, follow them, and whammo–right answers magically appeared and you got good grades.

So who’s better at math?  My husband is, hands-down.

I’ll never forget what happened one day soon after we were married.  We were out shopping together, and we were looking at an item for sale in a store that was 25% off.  Wondering what the “real” price was, I immediately dug into my purse for my calculator…while my husband spit out the price of the item out of his head before that calculator even saw the light of day.

I asked him how he got the answer without having to use a calculator…did he multiply by the decimal (o.25) and the original price and then subtract like I had always been taught?  Nope – he just took 10 percent of the pre-sale price (easy to calculate mentally), added that amount to it (another 10%), and then added half for the last 5%.

What he did involved a lot more steps than my method, but made a lot more sense.  What it boils down to is that he has better number sense than I do.  While he could mentally break down the numbers and put them back together to get to the answer we needed, I was mentally dependent on the standard algorithm and couldn’t move forward without it.

I was more successful in school, getting good grades because I could follow those logical series of steps they taught us. But my husband was more successful in applying math in a real-life situation because he understand how to use the numbers flexibly.  All I knew was my series of steps.

My lack of number sense was thrust in my face again about two years ago when I was teaching AP Environmental Science.  Students cannot use a calculator on the APES test, so I was showing them how to do a problem on the board (just like I was taught…) using long division.  The first thing that stunned me was that about 80% of the class had no idea what I was doing, telling me they had never seen long division before (!!).  The second complete stunner came when I was marching through the steps of long division, and my students kept asking me why I was doing what I was doing with the numbers.

And I couldn’t tell them why.  At all.  I had absolutely no idea why I was doing anything with those numbers – all I knew was that these were the steps you took to get to the right answer.

This number sense, this “why” of using numbers is one of the things this recent Scientific American article said that students really need to be taught concerning math – letting students develop their number sense by tackling problems from multiple angles, experiencing more visual approaches to math learning, and much less emphasis on speed.

To build number sense, students need the opportunity to approach numbers in different ways, to see and use numbers visually, and to play around with different strategies for combining them.

You know what the approach to math learning described above sounds like to me?  The approach that’s needed for students to master the oft-maligned Common Core Math Standards.  Instruction of these standards looks different because the standards are different from the “learn the steps to get to the right answer quickly” approach that has been the norm in math education for 100 years or so.  So yes, it may take a student longer to get at the answer…but the answer is no longer really the point.  The process students take to get to that answer is the focus these days, and that students understand why they’re doing what they’re doing with the numbers and can use them fluidly, flexibly, and are able to apply those patterns and relationships we see in numbers when they’re out and about in the real world.

That understanding is even called for in terms of students learning their math facts:

In 2005 psychologist Margarete Delazer of Medical University of Innsbruck in Austria and her colleagues took functional MRI scans of students learning math facts in two ways: some were encouraged to memorize and others to work those facts out, considering various strategies. The scans revealed that these two approaches involved completely different brain pathways. The study also found that the subjects who did not memorize learned their math facts more securely and were more adept at applying them. Memorizing some mathematics is useful, but the researchers’ conclusions were clear: an automatic command of times tables or other facts should be reached through “understanding of the underlying numerical relations.”

So I guess the question we need to ask ourselves is this – do we want students who are mathematically capable at the times they need to be in life, or do we want to stick with the traditional approach to math instruction that allows students to get the right answers but with no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing?

Do we want students who understand and can use numbers in meaningful ways, or do we want students who, like me in the store fumbling for my calculator, are trapped into following those rigid steps we were taught?

Let’s teach students to be capable, not dependent.

Plan for learning, and then get out of the way.

It took me about 12 years of teaching to realize I was doing everything backwards in my classroom.

I planned for what I was going to do in front of the students, then planned for what students would be doing to repeat back to me what I said to show they listened.  Repeat ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Before this little epiphany, I never got out of their way and let students learn.  I mean REALLY learn.  Like “ask their own questions, do their own research, come up with their own solutions, use Googleable stuff in a new situation like they’ll have to do in life” kind of learning.

It’s tough to realize you’re the biggest obstacle to learning in the room.

I wasn’t planning for learning.  I was planning the Mrs. E show on a regular basis, when I really needed to change the programming and turn the camera back on my students.  I needed to watch their learning rather than have them watch me do my job.

Just like amazing things happen for students when adults get their egos out of the way, amazing things happen for students when we let them do the learning.  And then get out of the way.


It came from a two day NGSS workshop: Take-aways and some resources

I had the privilege of attending a 2-day workshop this week regarding the NGSS standards and how to train teachers to implement them in their classrooms.  The best thing about this workshops was the clear entry points it gave teachers looking to implement the NGSS in their classrooms.  And by “implement” I don’t mean “teach content the same old way only now just teach the stuff mentioned in the NGSS;” I mean really getting students to be scientific thinkers and problem-solvers through transforming what science instruction looks like.  In sum, the most powerful take-aways from this workshop for changing science instruction under the NGSS are listed below:

  • Go for deep understanding to foster scientific literacy.  This means giving students more time to think rather than covering content.
  • Curriculum, instruction and assessments should all be three-dimensional, intertwining the crosscutting concepts, science and engineering practices, and the disciplinary core ideas in order for students to master the performance expectations.
  • Instruction must shift from teaching topics to teaching phenomena.
  • Instruction must shift from telling students stuff to having students “figuring it out.”
  • Assessments must evaluate student understanding based on proficiency scales that are developed from the level of thinking demanded in the performance expectation.

It’s those last two bullet points that seem like major obstacles to teachers who may be used to traditional methods of science instruction that require the teacher to be the focal point of the classroom most of the time.  It means giving up some control of what’s happening in the classroom and handing over the learning to students, letting them view scientific phenomena and come up with their own questions and generate their own explanations before the teacher tells them anything.  The quick and easy example (to engage students in the disciplinary core idea ESS2.B) the presenter gave was that of an anticline and a syncline (upfolds and downfolds in rock layers) that had been revealed as a result of road construction, showing us a picture similar to the one below (mainly an anticline, but you get the idea):


Image source

After showing students the picture (and pointing out the human in the picture for size reference), students generate their own observations and questions regarding the phenomenon shown in the picture, which sets the stage for what the focus of the unit will be.  Example questions would be:

  • How much energy is needed to bend rocks that way?
  • What types of energy are needed to cause the bend in the rocks?
  • How long did that bend take to form?
  • What causes the rocks to bend in the first place?
  • Why are the rocks in layers?
  • What types of rocks are the layers made out of?
  • Why are some layers different colors than other layers?

Students do their own research first on the questions they generated, seeking to come up with their own explanations for the phenomenon.  After that teachers can have students verify their explanations in some way, and then extend their understanding via some sort of application activity – i.e., a lab, creating and/or using a model, analyzing data…in other words, engage in those science and engineering practices.  Teachers then evaluate student understanding based on proficiency scales (rubrics) derived from the performance expectation being assessed.  These proficiency scales should show what students CAN do at each level of understanding rather than state what students can’t do.

As someone who spent the first 10 years or so of her 18-year science teaching career feeling like it was my job to dispense information first before giving labs that simply confirmed what I told my students, I understand that this process is going to be hard for some teachers to implement in their classrooms.  However, the advice the presenter gave (which is also the advice I give my science teachers in my district) is this:  Start small.  Start with just integrating phenomena first.  Start by making rubrics from performance expectations for evaluation.  Start by letting students create explanations first rather than lecturing right away.

Start small…but just get started.  Just like mountains and earthquakes and those anticlines and synclines pictured above, small changes will eventually lead to big changes in classroom instruction and student learning.  And the process outlined above is way better for student learning than having them sit and passively watch teachers do their jobs.

In order to help teachers get the small starts they need, a lot of good resources were explored over the two days of this workshop.  I have collected them all in a Blendspace learning playlist for easier access.  They are divided up into categories, with a text page at the start of each category that lists out what the next few links will be.  Please feel free to share them with anyone who needs resources for NGSS implementation in their classrooms.


Deconstructing the NGSS Part 4: Aligned Instruction

assessment instruction puzzle

In Part 3 of this series of deconstructing the NGSS, we looked at how to align the assessments to our deconstructed learning targets.  When aligning assessments to targets, the main rule you need to remember is this:  The verb of the learning target should indicate to students what they need to do on the assessment to show mastery.  And it’s that assessment that reveals what mastery looks like for students.

If the assessment is what mastery looks like, then we need to plan instruction to get students there.  In other words, our instruction should be aligned to what mastery looks like on the assessment.

For example, let’s take a look at the assessment plan presented in the last post again:


Take a look at the first objective or learning target in the list: “I can tell the difference between weather and climate.”  Do students have to be able to internalize the definitions “weather” and “climate” in order to master this objective?  Yes.  But they also need to go one step further and actually state a difference – and the difference cannot be merely the definitions of those two terms.  Students need to examine the definitions and then extract a difference from them and state that and not just parrot back definitions they copied out of a text or off the internet.  A true difference reveals understanding, not just the capability of rote memorization.  So, on the test, students would encounter a differences chart such as the one below:

differences 2So how should your instruction help students master this objective (which looks really simple, but actually requires some thinking)? If I was back in the classroom, here’s how I’d go about it:

  1. Have students look up the text/internet definitions of climate and write them out.
  2. In pairs, have them discuss what those definitions are/what they mean in their own words and write the “student-translated” definition down in their notes.  Have the teacher confirm that the translation is acceptable before moving on.
  3. On their own, students complete a Frayer model diagram for each term.  Students should share their Frayer model diagrams with at least two other students and the teacher before moving on.
  4. On their own, have students extract a difference from their student-translated definitions and Frayer models.  They will write it down in a chart just like the one pictured above and then, underneath the chart, compile that difference into a well-thought-out, logical, beautifully constructed sentence that will bring the teacher to her knees with joy.  These charts and sentences will be teacher reviewed for feedback.

Please note two things about the instructional plan above: First, the teacher was only involved in setting up the learning activities ahead of time and giving feedback during the activities – in every step, the students were responsible for doing the work of learning.  Also note that the “answer” to the differences chart was never gone over as a whole group to avoid students writing down something that wasn’t their own thinking to begin with. Second, the students were practicing the thinking they would need to master the objective, not just the stuff that would help them master the objective.  Too often as teachers we think if we give students the content stuff they will just know how to magically put it all together…and they don’t.  We have to give them practice at not only learning the stuff, but also learning how to think with and use the stuff.

Now, I know what some people are probably thinking: “You have them the question before they took the test!  Of course they’re going to do well if you make it easy for them like that!”  Well, I don’t know if beginning with the end in mind is equivalent to “making it easy.” If you just hand out test questions as your instruction and expect kids to get the right answers and nothing else, then sure – it’s really easy!  However, the learning activities that are geared towards having students practice thinking certainly aren’t that easy for students in my opinion, especially when you have students that are a product of a educational system where quick right answers are more valued in class and on assessments than patient problem-solving.  But also don’t forget that students can only master a target they can see; if we keep what mastery looks like from them by never giving them the end-goal for mastery, then we’re just setting them up for failure rather than success.

(Also note that, as far as multiple choice questions are concerned, you should definitely NOT give them the same questions during instruction as you would during the test, because students will memorize correct answers and then you cannot draw valid inferences regarding what they have actually mastered.  Questions assessing similar content, concepts, and skills should be given during instruction/on formatives, but should not be the same questions as on the summative assessment in order to draw valid inferences about student understanding.)

Bottom line, your instruction needs to be planned in such a way that aligns to what mastery looks like on your assessment.  However, students not only have to practice with the content/conceptual stuff they’ll need to master, but also the thinking they will have to do with it.  To me, the “thinking practice” is much more important than any science stuff I ever taught students.  Why? Because I remember hearing once that, after students graduate from high school, they forget about half of what they learned in 6 months because they simply don’t use it or don’t need it for what they are doing with their lives.

But will all students need the ability to think, no matter where their lives take them? Absolutely.