Tag Archives: Good Teaching

Making Lessons Interesting 1

Intrinsic motivation (things that we're interested in) is probably our most powerful motivator. Interest as a motivator is not just building on what students are already interested in. It is also about making things interesting.

  • Can you use novelty?
  • Can you make it a mystery?
  • Can you make it fun?
  • Can you make it interesting?

My doctorate focused on what motivates underachieving middle school students (article; dissertation). In the Underachievers Study, even though students thought that much of their work did not tie in with their interests, they did find some of the work interesting. This varied by the individual. Doris liked teachers sharing stories from their past. Cathy liked lessons related to government and books such as The Outsiders and Huck Finn, which related to the South, where she had lived as a young child. Ben thought his fourth grade teacher, who dressed up as story characters, was interesting.

There is a special category that motivates middle school students: “blood and guts.” Why do you think those “Grossology” books that we all love to hate sell so well? Because middle school kids love belching and farting, body parts and bodily fluids. They love anything disgusting! So anything, we can tie productively into belching and farting will capture their imaginations! Mrs. Edwards, a teacher in the study, reported that Ben also liked blood and guts and anything gory, “Ben loves books that have gory stuff things in them. He loved Edgar Allan Poe.”

When I was a university Practicum Supervisor (supervising sophomore student teachers during their first field experience), I was in a sixth grade science teacher’s classroom and they were introducing students to the microscope. A common introductory activity for working with microscopes is to look at the difference between plant cells and animal cells. Often the activity uses onions because they have large cells. The activity also often calls for using cells from inside their mouths. The students have to take a cotton swab, dab the inside of their cheeks, and put it on a slide.

What do all the sixth grade girls say at this point in the activity? “Ewwwww, gross!” But they almost always follow that immediately with, “Let me do it!”

 

What do you do to make your lessons interesting?

What’s to Blame for Kids Not Learning?

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I believe all students can learn. You know I think there are “easy to teach” students and “hard to teach” students, but I think they all can learn. So what is it that gets in the way of students learning?

When I ask teachers that question, they often generate a list like this one:

    • Attitude
    • Lack of home support
    • Learning disability
    • Learning styles
    • Substance abuse
    • Apathy
    • Defiance
    • Low aspirations
    • Lack of sleep
    • Lazy
    • Peer pressure
    • How the teacher teaches
    • Lack of preparation
    • Normal distractions

There is no doubt that home and social factors have an enormous impact on achievement. Many students come to school facing problems that cannot be fixed by anything that teachers might do. We could point to a long list of factors such as psychological problems, emotional problems, poor study habits, low self-esteem, withdrawal, aggression, social isolation, conflicts at home, over-expectations of parents, under-expectations of parents, physical or medical causes, social/class differences and expectations, conflicts with teachers, lack of academic readiness and preparation, learning disabilities, poor home life, unsupportive parents, previous traumatic experience, poverty, and low self-confidence.

When you look at lists like these, it is easy to understand why educators might fall into the trap of blaming others for why some students aren’t learning.

But we need to be careful of blame as this poem (author unknown) points out:

Different Levels of Blaming Each Other for What has Happened…

The college professor who said such wrong in the student is a shame,
Lack of preparation in high school is to blame.
Said the high school teacher good heavens that boy is a fool,
The fault of course is with the middle school.
The middle school teachers said from such stupidity may I be spared,
They sent him up to me so unprepared.
The primary teacher said the kindergarten blockheads all,
They call it preparation, why it’s worse than none at all.
The kindergarten teacher said, such lack of training never did I see,
What kind of mother must that woman be.
The mother said poor helpless child–he’s not to blame,
His father’s folks are all the same.
Said the father at the end of the line,
I doubt the rascal is even mine!

Blaming, however, does not help us address the issue of helping every child learn. I am reminded of the old saying, “Do you want to fix blame, or do you want to fix problems?” Perhaps another familiar saying is appropriate here:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The strength to change the things I can, and
The wisdom to know the difference.

While it is easy to identify all those factors that contribute to a child not succeeding in school, it is much more important that we identify the ones we do and do not have significant control over. For example, we can’t control if students are sleepy unless we let them sleep in class, and we can’t control anything that happens away of school unless we adopt them (and supervise them closely!). And there is no way to control what has happened to them in the past.

So what can we control? What factors can we change? Where is the opportunity for us to impact learning, especially with students facing lots of challenges?

And the only answer is: What we do in the classroom. Instruction.

Classroom practice, how we teach and how we interact with students, is one of the few factors impacting achievement over which teachers have direct control. A few premises of this blog are that school practice does play a role in both underachievement and achievement, and that changing instruction to better meet the needs of hard to teach students can both help reverse negative achievement patterns and counter-act the negative conditions over which we have no control.

And maybe that’s the best reason for a teacher to focus on engaging students in meaningful learning: to gain a little more control…

 

What Makes for Good Learning Experiences?

The more we try to to help build the talents of every student and help every learner succeed in school, the more we have to be deliberate about creating good learning experiences in our classrooms. I have certainly added to the conversation about what I believe gives students good learning experiences.

The roots of those ideas are not just my own experiences as a learner and a teacher, and not just conducting research and reviewing research, but from actually asking people about their own good learning experiences. The Good Learning Experiences Activity is one of the ways I have explored different people’s perspectives on how they think they learn well.

“Think of a good learning experience,” the script for the activity begins. “It can be in school, or out of school. It can be when your grandfather taught you how to cast a fly rod, or when your teacher worked with you to write that really good essay. But think of a time when you had an ‘aha!’ or something finally made sense, or you could finally do something. Think of a good learning experience.”

I give small groups of participants a few minutes to share their stories. Next, I ask them to jot down on scratch paper what it was that made it a good learning experience. What were the characteristics of the experience? After a few more minutes to share their lists with their neighbors, we compile a class list on chart paper, an overhead, or on a projected computer.

 

Before reading on, just take a second to think about a good learning experience of your own, and what it was that made that a good learning experience.

 

I have conducted the activity with people of nearly every age group: upper elementary students, middle school students, high school students, college students, teachers, and parents. Only a few learners state that they can’t think of any good learning experience. Many of the learners state that their best learning experiences have taken place outside of school. No one has ever said that their best learning experience came from a terrific lecture, or an interesting textbook, or an engaging worksheet (although I believe each of these can be a useful teaching tool when applied wisely).

Having conducted this activity with so many groups, I am intrigued by the results. I was surprised to find that, regardless of the group involved, there were common elements with other groups’ lists. Since 1992, I informally tracked the results and found that certain characteristics of good learning experiences come up in nearly every list:

  • The work was well connected to other ideas and to the real world
  • The content of the learning experience was personally relevant, interesting, useful, or meaningful to the learner
  • The learner had choices, shared authority, control, and responsibility
  • The learning was hands-on and experiential
  • The learner learned from and taught others
  • The learner had the support of a patient, supportive, and nurturing mentor
  • The learning was individualized and although there were standards for the work, the learner could meet them in his or her own way
  • There was a positive aesthetic component to the experience: it was fun or left the learner feeling good
  • The experience helped the learner understand him or herself
  • The learner had success and accomplishment with challenging work

Now, these are my words synthesizing the lists I have collected over the two decades I’ve been doing this activity. Certainly elementary students aren’t going to use these word exactly. But doesn’t this list reflect what made your own good learning experience good?

Much can be learned by investigating how students believe they learn well. What better source for finding out what motivates students to learn than themselves?

But with knowledge comes responsibility. If you know what makes for good learning experiences, don’t you now have an obligation to insure that you model these in our own teaching? – Or at least start learning how to do these in the classroom?

 

(Note: I have been with educators who have used the prompt “think of a good experience” or “think of a good school experience”, and it never gets to the right information about when people learn well. If you are considering doing this activity with your own students or teachers or parents, I highly recommend that you stick with the prompt “think of a good learning experience.”)

 

Thinking of Instruction as Two Types

When our pilot teachers were visiting a school that is a little further along than we are at implementing Customized Learning, a colleague and I got talking about how we (us and our colleagues) had a lot of work to do on instruction if we were going to be successful with our implementation.

Then it hit us that a lot of teachers would say they already do a pretty good job with instruction and would object to being told that we had a lot of work to do on it.

And then I realized that both perspectives were right. We just weren’t talking about the same kind of instruction in each instance.

There are two kinds of instruction.

There is Instruction for Lower Order Thinking and Instruction for Higher Order Thinking.

So, it doesn’t matter if you use Bloom’s Taxonomy, New Bloom’s, Marzano’s Taxonomy, or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Instruction for Lower Level Thinking is focused on recall and simple application, and Instruction for Higher Order Thinking is focused on nontrivial application, complex reasoning, and creating.

Our teachers are really pretty good at Instruction for Lower Order Thinking. But we have a lot of work to do on Instruction for Higher Order Thinking.

The distinction, thinking of instruction as two types, doesn’t just help clarify our thinking.

This distinction would actually help us in a couple different ways.

We now could say, “You guys are really good at Instruction for Lower Level Thinking. But now, to do Customized Learning well, we need to help you get better at Instruction for Higher Level Thinking.” The message about getting better at instruction would have always been about support, but could have been taken as criticism of their abilities. Now, we can differentiate between validating their abilities, and identifying a need, and offering support to address that need.

And it helps us think about when should teachers apply each type of instruction.

And it will help teachers think about how the two kinds of instruction are different and which strategies support which type.

And it helps us think about leveraging what kinds of interventions to support teachers.

What would thinking of instruction as two types mean to you and the work you are doing in your school?

School is Boring

School is boring.

We all know it.

Kids know it.

Parents know it, but don’t want to think about it.

We teachers know it, too, but defend it. In some small way, I think we don’t want to think that the subject(s) we love could possibly be boring! But we do go on to say things like: It’s preparation for life after school. We all have to do things in life that we don’t want to do. Or, I wish students would start taking responsibility for their own learning. Or, it is the students’ job to learn.

My problem with putting the onus on students is that we are all quick to forget that kids are not in school by choice. They are in school by law. Ironically, it is we, the educators, who are in school by choice. In fact, we are getting paid to help kids learn. In fact, we are the only ones getting paid – if learning were the children’s job, wouldn’t they get paid, too? To me this all shifts the moral responsibility.

And we are quick to forget that kids are kids. And that being a kid when you are a kid is appropriate. It is what you are supposed to be!

And we are the adults.

And we spend WAY too much time trying every possible crazy thing so solve the problem, EXCEPT trying to engage students. It’s enough to make you tired!

I think teachers defend school being boring because we fear we will be blamed.

But I don’t blame teachers.

(Well, if you lecture through an 80 minute block, perhaps you should be blamed…)

Edwards Demming, the father of Total Quality Management, says that 95% of our problems come from structures, not people. And Roger Schank actually makes the argument that it is school being boring that is to blame for kids not learning more, not teachers! In response to Tom Friedman’s blaming teachers, Schank writes:

So one more time for Tom: the problem is that school is boring and irrelevant and all the kids know it. They know they will never need algebra, or trigonometry. They know they will never need to balance chemical equations and they know they won’t need random historical myths promoted by the school system. When all this stuff was mandated in 1892 it was for a different time and a different kind of student.

I’m not denying that it’s hard, or that teachers get frustrated when we are trying what we think we can and not getting any further than we do. Why wouldn’t we feel like we were treading water as fast as we can?! And maybe that even makes it (a little) understandable when we blame kids for not learning.

But, the the solution to ALL this is teachers doing more to engage students.

Not be because it is our fault.

Because it is what we have control over.

And if we want teachers to engage students, then we sure better support the heck out of teachers!

And even though its true, we can’t simply say to teachers, you just have to focus on these five things: inviting schools, higher order thinking, learning by doing, real world connections, and student voice and choice.

We need to get teachers training. And into classrooms with teachers who do a good job engaging students. And we all better remove the barriers that are keeping us from creating the conditions that students find engaging (even if it means changing our curriculum, or how we schedule students, or how we group and regroup students, or how we connect with the community and the potential classrooms outside the building).

And the good news is that when kids aren’t bored, they don’t only learn more (making teachers/us look good), they behave better (making teachers/us happier!).

We need to get beyond the (irrelevant) question of who is to blame, or the (senseless) debate of whether we should or not, and just do it! Just work to engage students!

Engaging students is a win-win! It’s good for kids and it’s good for teachers. Just do it!

 

How will you help make school less boring?

 

What If Sitting In Class Were As Much Fun As Days Off!

I participate in conversations on the Association for Middle Level Education’s MiddleTalk listserve. Recently, we’ve had a series of interesting conversations around each of the 9 points in the Forbes article, “Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught In School.”

Number 8 is “Days off are more fun than sitting in class.”

I caught myself thinking this one might be true…

Most of you reading this know, my own professional work has focused, for a long time, on motivating students. I constantly wonder how many of our problems would we solved if we just put more energy into how to engage students and how to make learning meaningful to them: attendance; behavior; being on task; distractions like technology and social media; achievement; and on and on.

Now in all fairness, I don’t blame teachers for this lack of focus on engagement and student motivation. I think few of us grew up in schools focused on motivation and engagement, and few of us went through teacher preparation programs that emphasized (let alone modeled!) a focus on engagement and motivation. And you can’t do what you don’t know.

Young children engaged with an iPad

That said, I do think now is the time to start building that focus. It seems clear, when I think about the the challenges schools face, like the day-to-day issues listed above. And it seems clear as competition for students is increasing (public schools, private schools, charter schools, online schools, political pressure for school choice, etc.). And it seems clear as I think about the shift from Industrial Age education, with its focus on developing the talents of the few and the compliance of the many, to Information Age education, with its need to develop the talents in all.

But, if we’re going to ask teachers to do what they have not experienced, then we need to support the heck out of them. And not with information. Information doesn’t change practice, teachers need experiences! Send them to schools and classrooms that are doing a great job of motivating students. And share stories and videos of such classrooms. Structure workshops and courses and committee meetings (any school function focused on the adults needing to learn) so that they model the conditions that motivate learners.

And then, maybe, if we do focus on engagement and motivation, being in class would be more fun than a day off…

 

It’s a Matter of Using the Right Prompt: The Words of Gary Stager

This week, both Gary Stager and I were featured speakers at the Association for Independent Maryland and DC Schools’ (AIMS) technology conference.

Gary is an old friend and colleague, who has a long history of working with 1to1 learning with laptop schools (including the very first, in Australia) and with other schools interested in leveraging technology for learning and in constructivist learning. He clearly loves children and everything he advocates for schools is based on creating better experiences (especially learning experiences) for children. He is provocative and takes on a lot of populist education ideas with a very common sense approach. He always leaves his audience thinking.

What follows are some of the ideas and quotes Gary shared in his sessions at the AIMS conference.

  • The secret to engaging students is using the right prompts. A good prompt is worth a 1000 words – a good prompt, challenge, problem, or motivation; appropriate materials; sufficient time; supportive culture (including expertise) – kids can do works that is beyond them. Good prompts require a really different educational environment, one that values the kinds of things that Reggio Amelia values.
  • Gary has several articles on effective PBL on his “virtual handout.” (among other great resources)
  • We have to think less about teaching how to do computers, or about working at someone else’s pace. We need to stop teaching secretarial skills. We need good prompts. We need to teach students to use the computer to create what they want to create.
  • Alan Kay – the computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.
  • Gary’s only rule when he is working with students – you have to be doing something.
  • Teacher as “Ringmaster”
  • “Students will do it for themselves, when it matters to them, but not when it is arbitrary or coercive” – Gary Stager
  • Less us, more them
  • Gary likes it when schools/classrooms focus their work with children by asking the question, “What are the 5 big ideas of your grade level or course?”
  • Some of Gary’s recipe for being successful with students: Being sensitive to the passions, talents, and styles of kids. Being receptive to the learning differences of kids. If you are doing active learning activities, then you can get to know kids.
  • The best decisions about education are made closest to the child.
  • What if we simply reduced it all to waking up every morning and asking, “How do we make this the best 7 hours possible for these children?”
  • The biggest problem we have in school is we don’t get to know the kids and everything is taught disconnected from everything else. That’s followed by not trying to make things interesting for students, not finding out what is of interest or a passion to the students, not having resources, not letting students do things.
  • Gary on why teachers need lots of PD that puts them in different learning environments as learners: People can’t choose from what they haven’t experienced

Correct Answers vs. Building Understanding: What Do Learners Need?

My step-son, Sam, is one of those otherwise bright students who struggles with math. Back when he was in high school, his mom asked me to help him. He had gotten a question wrong on a Geometry quiz and didn’t understand the correct answer. My wife hoped that since I was a former high school math teacher that I could help him out.

The question was, “What is the intersection of two planes?”

He told me that he had answered that the intersection was a point, since only lines intersect. Sam went on, “I went in to ask my teacher about the question, but she just kept giving me the right answer. I really don’t understand it at all.”

“So, you’ve only talked about lines intersecting?”

Sam nodded.

“And you haven’t really talked at all about planes and how they intersect?”

Sam shook his head.

“Then I could see why you thought it was a point,” I told him. “But look at this.” His notebook was on the kitchen counter where we were talking and I said, “Let’s say this is one of the planes,” while tapping his notebook. I grabbed a magazine, saying it was the other plane. I held the spine of the magazine at an angle against the face of Sam’s notebook.

“How do these two planes come together? What kind of geometric shape?” I asked.

Sam got one of those “Oh, my gosh! Is it that simple?!” looks on his face and said it was a line.

Now, there was nothing wrong with the teacher asking the plane intersection question without first modeling it for students. It is a great way to have students apply the concept of intersection of geometric shapes and see if they really understand it. And the teacher was a kind and knowledgeable math teacher.

But students who struggle with a subject need more than just someone who is sensitive and kind and knowledgeable. Sam needed more than the correct answer. I think teachers who are intuitive mathematicians (or social scientists, or literacy specialists, or scientists) know their subjects in an intuitive way that makes it hard for them to explain ideas to students who do not understand their subject intuitively.

When students get an incorrect answer, it is too easy for teachers who understands their content intuitively to assume that the student simply made a mistake (perhaps in calculating), or didn’t study hard enough, or is simply a slow student in their subject.

What they don’t understand is that more often than not, a student’s wrong answer is actually a correct answer within the student’s current (but incorrect) schema for the topic – the student’s internal model that tells him how things work.

If the teacher’s goal is to have the student understand the material correctly, then simply offering the correct answer is less productive than trying to understand the student’s misconception and then think of an example or a way to model the material that will create a bridge between the student’s misunderstanding and the correct understanding.

Sam’s schema said only lines intersect and he knew that lines intersect in a point. We could either stop with proving that Sam was wrong by giving him the correct answer, or we could work to understand his thinking so we could lead him in the right direction.

I don’t blame the teacher. She simply did what I did when I was a math teacher. It wasn’t until long after I stopped teaching math and became of student of learning that I grew to understand this principle.

How much more effective would our teaching be if we approached our students’ incorrect answers as misconceptions rather than missing information?

 

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing in Middle Level

I recently posted “Let’s Put the “Middle” Back in Middle Level” over on the Bright Futures Blog.

In it, I argued that we middle level educators are being pulled away from our core values by a lot of competing priorities and goals. I wrote:

Middle level shouldn’t be about test taking, or getting kids to put aside their cell phones or Facebook pages, or high school readiness, or work readiness. It’s not even about “hormones with feet…” First and foremost, middle level needs to be about young adolescents: what are their characteristics and what practices are harmonious with those characteristics.

And later:

And the more we get away from that being our center (no pun intended), the harder it is to teach middle level students. That includes (and is perhaps especially true for) that list of important (but supporting) goals for middle level education…

I also shared some really great resources! available for free on the AMLE website, that we can use with our teachers, school boards, and parents and communities to remind everyone about the main thing in middle level education.

 

It’s Your Turn:

How are you keeping the main thing the main thing in middle level education?

 

Harassment & Engagement – Social Media Study Group

Note: This is one in a series of blog posts to be used by Auburn’s Social Media Design Team to conduct a study group before making recommendations for social media policy. If unfamiliar with this series, you might find reading this post helpful.

Core Issues Study Questions (Bullying & Boredom)

  • What are Auburn schools current doing related to bullying and school climate?
  • What are Auburn schools current doing related to fostering student engagement in academics?
  • What is considered best practice around bullying?
  • What is considered best practice around engaging students?

Although intended as a tool for Auburn’s Social Media Design Team, everyone is invited to use these posts as a resource. And if you are not a member of Auburn’s Social Media Design Team, you are welcome to post comments, too. But please limit/be thoughtful of the sharing of opinion and stay focused on the focus questions – we a trying to use these posts for fact-finding, identifying resources, identifying best practice, etc. Thanks!