Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Letter to a New(er) Teacher

I want in on this letter-writing business that folks are all blogging about. So here's my letter, from a newish teacher to a newer teacher:

Dear Person,

There are lots of people out there who will tell you things that are definitely true. I'm writing to tell you things that might be true. Or maybe they're wrong. So here are a bunch of things that (might) make you better at teaching:

1. Find a teacher who is mediocre, and try to be at least as good as that teacher as quickly as possible.

It's impossible to be creative when you're under pressure. You need to be at least as good as the boring, just OK teachers. Figure out what that low bar is, and clear it as quickly as possible so that you can focus on being good and interesting. For me, that happened at the end of my first year, I think. Hopefully it'll be sooner for you.

2. Write your own curriculum.

Broadly speaking, people get better at X by doing X, and by intensely improving certain aspects of X. Basketball players strengthen their legs and play scrimmages. Actors train their voices and rehearse. Astronauts do that whirly barf thing and go underwater to simulate low-gravity.

What do teachers do? How do teachers train and rehearse?

It's hard to think of things that teachers can do outside of the classroom to rehearse and train. A lot of people talk about the importance of observations, and that's because in teaching you need to turn every performance into a rehearsal. But what can you do outside the classroom?

The most effective thing that I can think of is writing your own curriculum. So find some sort of safety net that will allow you to spend the year writing curriculum from scratch.

3. Throw away large parts of your curriculum, every year.

If curriculum writing is what makes you sharp, then what happens after you've got a bunch of pretty good resources?

Louie CK knows. He spent 15 frustrating years perfecting his stand-up act, only to discover that he was stuck with it. He didn't become great until he threw it all away:

Put it like this: you get smarter as you keep on at this job. If you use old materials, you're using the stuff that the stupider version of you made.

Do you really trust that guy?

4. If the kids don't like you, then you're probably doing something wrong.

Your job isn't to make kids happy. It's not. But you desperately need them to be happy.

When kids aren't happy your job isn't fun. And when a hard job isn't fun, it's just miserable. Actors need a happy audience. Businesses need happy customers. Writers need happy readers.

Now, in all these fields there are times when it's OK to make the people who consume your work unhappy. You can write a disturbing scene in a novel; you can add a new, but annoying, security feature to your product; you can be ugly in character. But if you're going to pull any of these things off, you need credibility. And credibility means that folks trust that you're in control, and that you'll take them somewhere good.

You need credibility and a baseline of happiness in the classroom in order to push kids past where they're comfortable. So make sure kids are happy with you.

To sum things up: look at other jobs for models of professional growth

Teaching is not a very well-understood profession. Teachers aren't good at getting better, and schools aren't very good places for teachers to learn. The best thing to do is think about how great people become great in other fields, and then use the analogy to adopt the insight to teaching.

So, good luck! If you stick around long enough, maybe this profession will figure itself out.



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The importance of being really careful in assessing character education

From the NYTimes Q&A with Dominic Randolph:

Q. How do you answer studies that have so far proven that no character education program is effective? Indeed, the implication from the studies is that no program can be effective. That is, October 2010, a federal study, the largest and most thorough ever conducted, found that schoolwide Character Education programs produce exactly zero improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

A. D.R. Exactly the reason that there should be a new effort to create programs that are effective. There is plenty of research to show that “character” as defined by people like Marty Seligman and Chris Peterson is positively correlated with success and high achievement both in individuals and groups. I just think that many supposed character programs have been ill conceived and not well executed. We have not yet worked out an entire program at both our schools, but I think that the work that we are doing is heading in some interesting directions.

Here's the federal study that's referenced above. What drives me crazy is that there's all this money being spent and all this time being invested in programs that don't work. Will my program fail? Yeah, it probably will. That's why assessment is so important.

People resist change. We put students through experiences precisely because we've reasoned that they should impact the students. What that means is that it's really easy to say that kids must have grown because they went through these meaningful experiences. It's so easy to fool yourself into thinking that people have learned something when they haven't learned a thing.

In all likelihood the course that I'm designing will not significantly impact the character of my students. But I think we can try, and if we are careful in the way we measure success we've got a fighting chance of figuring this out eventually.

Here's what I'm proposing as measurements of the success of my program. I'll take as evidence of success any positive, measurable changes in the following areas:
  1. Amount of charity given
  2. Amount of time dedicated towards others
  3. Attitudes towards an individual's obligations to others

Right now I'm looking for surveys that measure any of these. If you've got anything, please drop it into the comments.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Helping kids become better people

There's an honors program at my school. It's broken up by year. Kids have to apply to get in, and then it's a series of out-of-school sessions and pow-wows, and there are a couple field trips too. At the end of high school the kids do a capstone project. The sessions with the kids are typically about culture, big ideas and enrichment. For example, one pair of teachers runs a series of sessions where kids read some ancient philosophy and then debate the views. Other teachers have kids read great works and then discuss it as a group. It's very humanities-focused, it's very culture-focused, and very intellectual-focused.

This stuff doesn't really excite me very much, but next year I'm running the honors program for 11th graders. I'm finding myself trying to design a course for the kids that I think is worth their time.

The theme that's prescribed for the kids in their 11th grade program is "Self and Society," which I'm choosing to interpret as "People are pretty damn self-centered. Let's figure out how to help a group of young people become more likely to help other people." That means that we're trying to affect at least two changes in our students:
  1. Change their views about the things that deserve their help
  2. Make them more likely to help those things
I'm giving myself just the next two weeks to figure out how to implement this stuff, because this is very much NOT my main gig. Still, there are a ton of difficult and fascinating questions that I'm encountering as I work on designing this course:
  • How do we measure how likely a person is to help others? Are there standard instruments of measurement that we can steal?
  • How prescriptive should we be about what sort of things a person has obligations to? If a kid thinks that the most important thing to support is a political party, should we push him to think about his obligations to support anti-malarial efforts? 
  • What sort of things make a person more likely to help others? Will practicing things as a group  support a change in the personal lives of these kids? Does reading articles help? What sort of reading helps? Do activities help? What sort of activities work for this?
  • Can we create a community in just a few sessions spread out over the course of the year?
I'm not sure about any of these, and I'll be sweating some of this stuff out over the next few weeks. My next step is to figure out how to measure success of this course. Will we do pre- and post-assessments using some sort of ethical attitudes instrument? Will we ask students to put together a charitable portfolio? Will either of these measure what we're aiming for?

If you've got anything that you think could help us change the lives of a bunch of high school boys, PLEASE email me, or leave a note in the comments.

Monday, June 11, 2012

4 things more important than SBG

Everybody should think about implementing SBG, because it makes sense, and classrooms should be places where things make sense. A well-done SBG implementation can also eliminate a few perverse incentives that are endemic to traditional grading. But there's more to assessment reform than SBG.

Actually, there are at least 4 changes in my assessment scheme that have done more for my students than SBG has. In no particular order...

Frequent Assessment

I used to assess my students with tests every 2-3 weeks, after we had finished a unit. I still used SBG, in the sense that the quizzes/tests were broken down by skill and students were allowed and expected to reassess. But several things were off:

  • My students freaked out over these quizzes/tests, because they occurred somewhat infrequently. This put their focus on the tests, rather than the knowledge underlying them. 
  • Kids would cram during lunch for their quizzes/tests in the afternoon. Since the quizzes didn't come all the time, students felt that they could put off learning until right before the assessment.
  • Retention was poor, overall, in my classes.
Things changed this year. Quizzes came every week, and we started making significant progress on all three of the above problems. Quizzing at least weekly significantly lowers the stakes of any particular quiz or test in a way that SBG, with all its reassessments, doesn't quite pull off for me. And the learning benefits of frequent quizzing or assessment are well-documented. See this article, or this one. The act of decontextualized retrieval helps solidify the learning that's going on in the classroom. 

Cycling Concepts

Retention was a problem in all my classes, so this year I took a page out of Cornally and Picciotto's playbooks and extend the exposure my students have to concepts. It used to be that my quizzes and tests always assessed NEW things, things that I'd never assessed before. Oops. By doing that I sent the message to my kids that the things that they learned only need to be known once. Even more, by only assessing a new idea once a lot of my kids actually were lost between the cracks, and SBG wasn't able to catch all of them.

Now I know better. My weekly quizzes contain some new material, but always some old material that is being assessed for a second, third, fourth, or nth time. My students don't know what old material will show up on the quizzes. Anything is fair game, from any part of the year, on any quiz or test. Because, hell, as long as we're learning these things we might as well actually remember them past Friday.

Deeper Assessment

It turns out my students don't know as much as I thought they did. I know this because, every once in a while, I ask them to explain something. Or I ask them a question that isn't like anything they've seen before, but should be a safe conceptual leap from their current understanding. Or I ask them to describe why something is wrong.

To me, Sam Shah owns this point. Here's what he has to say about assessments that ask students to explain themselves:
I’ve been attempting to incorporate more writing in my math classes. It’s been extraordinarily enlightening, because what this has done is show me two things: (1) kids don’t know how to explain their reasoning in clear ways, and (2) I’m usually extraordinarily wrong when I think my kids understand something, and the extent to which I am wrong makes me cringe.
Bingo. And quizzes are the right place to do this. First, because hard assessments help learning. Second, because there's less chance of a class rebelling on a quiz or a test. Here's what I mean: when I've tried to ask kids in class to explain why something is true, sometimes a student will squirm uncomfortably and then blurt out, "Well who cares why it's true? I've got the right answer, right?" And then everyone else will laugh, and then I've lost the class.

Now, without a doubt that's all on me. It's my job to make sure that I expand these kids conceptions of what it means to understand math. But for an initially resistant group, deeper questions on assessments have helped me take the first step, since that sort of whole-class rebellion is less likely when everyone's brains are working hard to figure out a difficult conceptual question. It's not necessarily pretty, but it's worked for me, and it's orthogonal to what SBG does.

No Points

Points and grades are a part of school. Fine. I get it. And grades motivate some kids, maybe. But read this, and tell me how to recreate this in a classroom with points:
I will give you my honest perspective on the [computer programming] class, and I believe everyone in the class feels the same way. Your class is immensely enjoyable, and the one class I look forward to throughout the day... The class is extremely chill and open-ended; we can go at whatever pace we like, as long as we can still finish on time. Your class is the proof that there does not need to be a daily structured schedule for students to accomplish and to want to accomplish – We all of our own will and decision come to class each day, mainly because we enjoy it. It is a stress free work environment, as everyone just hangs out, has fun, helps each other, and in general just enjoys themselves.
That was a class without grades. I mean, there were grades, but it was clearly communicated to the students that they would be getting identical, high grades if they were working hard. In other words, I told them, "I won't think about grades unless you guys force me to." And that was that. This won't always work, but I've seen some amazing things when I've given it a shot.

Grades and points distort the learning environment, and SBG is a way of assigning points and grades. A lot of folks who talk about SBG think it will help break points addictions. It won't, but getting rid of points does.

SBG is worth it

I think that SBG is worth it, because it makes a bold statement to your students about what you value, and because it eliminates some nasty aspects of traditional grading. It also makes some data analysis a bit easier. But the four things that I describe in this post are largely independent of SBG. A non-SBG system that assesses frequently with quizzes that spiral through old concepts and incorporates deeper conceptual questions is a classroom with a healthy assessment system, even if assessments are not broken into skills, and even if there is no student-initiated reassessment.

But if you're a new teacher and not sure whether to take the plunge on SBG, there's still plenty of reforming that you can do. And I think the stuff you can do is way more important than SBG.

Monday, June 4, 2012

SBG: The Rich Get Richer

If you run an SBG classroom your inbox likely looks a lot like mine, right now. Lots and lots of students are suddenly realizing that they want to reassess skills. And it's a pain. And it feels like a game. And occasionally it's great, and and sometimes there are great conversations that you just wouldn't have if you were unit testing without reassessment. Fine. But I'm interested in another aspect of SBG:
What sort of students will initiate a reassessment?
In my classes, it's almost always the students who are going to be just fine. Honors students love reassessing. Students with 83 averages love reassessing ("I really need a 90.") Sophomores reassess more than freshmen.

For me, strong students are way more likely to initiate reassessment than weaker students.

Duh, right? Of course they do. But there's a strain of teachers who promote SBG with success stories about students who would have traditionally been given a 70, but because of reassessment they received a grade that more accurately reflected their mastery of the material. "Isn't a shame that students who should be failing, now are being duly rewarded for their learning?"

That's just not my experience with SBG. My experience is that the students who are in serious danger of failing remain in serious danger of failing until I drag them into my classroom for some tutoring and reassessment. My students who struggle are (usually) harder to motivate, and that lack of motivation is also reflected in how likely a kid is to reassess.

In short: SBG is not good at making sure that students who have bad grades end up learning the stuff and getting a better grade. Kids who are hard to motivate, are still hard to motivate in SBG. We need to be more careful when we talk about SBG to be clear about what sort of things SBG will help with, and which it won't.

So what is SBG good for? More and more, I think that the big benefit* of running an SBG classroom is that SBG is a coherent, logical system that makes an attempt at fairness, and students respect and appreciate a fair system that they understand. It's having a system, more than its implementation, that really makes a big difference.

My prediction: If you came up with another fair, logical and well-thought-out alternative to traditional grading, it would have the same impact as SBG even if it didn't allow for student-initiated assessment.**

* There are little things along the way that are nice about SBG, but there are little things that are annoying about it also. For example, it's nice to have a skills checklist at the beginning of the semester. It's nice to be able to give detailed feedback to parents when they ask what their kid should work on, or what their kid is struggling with. But SBG also takes time. SBG does exacerbate certain problems with point-grubbing. SBG is reductive. 

** I'm actually a HUGE fan of teacher-initiated reassessment and of cycling through concepts constantly in my regular assessments. My weekly quizzes can include anything from any point of the year, and this has really tremendous payoffs in my classroom. But you don't need SBG to do that. You do need more regular assessments that cycle through old concepts, though.

[Related: This earlier post of mine.]