Some “whys” that need honest answers

Why are we still using teaching methods that we know don’t maximize student learning?

Why is what we’re teaching useful for students in their lives – and not just for the next grade level or course in the sequence?

Why are we still reporting student learning in terms of letters that represent how many points students have collected through the semester or year?

Why do we still insist on documenting student learning deficiencies rather than progress they’re making towards mastering a skill or concept?

Why are students still showing up only to watch teachers do their jobs?

Why is surface-level learning still valued by the majority?

Why do we do all the things that we do?  If the answer to that question isn’t deeply honest and truthful, if it’s just “because that’s what we do because that’s what was done to me,” then that answer or any answer that’s really saying that only with different words just isn’t good enough anymore (if it ever was).  It’s an answer that serves the best interests of adults, not students.  It’s not honest – it’s just an easy way out of addressing the real issues.

It’s time we searched for honest answers to questions that matter.

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Doing nothing is risky, too.

Our staff aren’t ready for that new technology.  We should wait on that.

The community isn’t going to like it; we should wait.

That teacher is about to retire; there’s nothing we can do to help them improve.

The change we want to enact may make people upset because it’s so different from what has been done traditionally; we can’t take the risk.

Well, doing nothing has it’s own risk.  By doing nothing you risk falling behind, going stale, honoring tradition over what’s right for students, and risk not giving students the needed skills they need to be successful in their world…which, we have to remember, isn’t our world.

We have to move forward, or risk becoming victims of our own inertia.

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.

Data as a starting point for getting better

Data is a starting point for improvement. Not the goal.

I taught high school science for 18 years.  I majored in history for my undergraduate degree.  I analyzed a lot of data, drew conclusions from it, and supported those conclusions with evidence.  As a teacher, I was consistently expected to use assessment data of all types to draw conclusions and improve teaching and learning in my classroom.

I guess what I’m saying is that looking at data, analyzing data, and using data to get better is a part of my natural rhythm.  When it comes to students, I don’t want to eyeball and guess at what they need to succeed; I need some data to help orient my compass in the right direction.

But I realize that using data isn’t a part of every teacher’s natural processes, and I think it’s because there’s some misconceptions and some knee-jerk reactions that float around data these days, such as:

  • People take data very personally.  What teacher hasn’t felt their heart sink when they’re looking at a test where most students did badly or standardized test data where students performed more poorly than expected? Having your ego crushed by horrible data is never a pleasant experience.  However, the next step is to take the next step in accepting what the data is telling us (if the data is valid and reliable in the first place) and figure out how to use it to improve our teaching and student learning.
  • Data is just numbers, and numbers don’t inform you about the whole child.  I believe this statement – numbers can’t tell you everything that’s going on with a student’s learning, and you must always make instructional decisions from a combination of the quantitative and the qualitative data at hand.  However, those quantitative numbers cannot be ignored, especially when the trend in the data is clear that something is amiss with instruction.  Ignoring data just because we don’t want to hear what it says is never a good practice, because students are the ones that suffer in the end.
  • Talking about test score data means all we care about is test scores.  If you know me at all, I loathe am not a fan of standardized testing, and it’s one of life’s biggest ironies that I am in charge of it at my district.  However, that doesn’t mean I won’t use the data provided to help learning improve for our students (especially since this year PARCC released test data by evidence statement, giving teachers more specific feedback about what students did well and what students need improvement upon…the first time in my 20 years in the education biz that I’ve ever seen any sort of useful accountability test data).  Unfortunately some educators equate looking at standardized test data with “teaching to the test” or that the district is just focused on test scores and taking away classroom autonomy from teachers. What we have to realize is that just because we hate the test the data came from doesn’t mean we can’t harness the information we get to improving teaching and learning.

To me, the mindset we should have around data is always using it as a starting point for improvement.  Those numbers are never the end goal – only a starting point for new opportunities and ideas about student learning.

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Owning vs. Renting Understanding

When instruction is designed around students rather than teachers, students are the ones doing the learning.  And when students are doing learning, checking their understanding, making mistakes, fixing broken knowledge using tools and strategies, and monitoring how well they’re learning is going, we hand the power to own learning back to students.

If we don’t have students practice the actual process of learning, then we’re teaching them to rent, not own understanding.

They need to be owners, not short-term renters.

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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.

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