Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Understanding by Design, Introduction & Chapter 1: Backward Design

In our primary textbook for the summer coursework, Understanding by Design, we're at last getting into the details of how an instructional unit should be organized. The basic idea behind the UbD process is simple: (1) Identify desired results, (2) Determine acceptable evidence that those results have been achieved, and (3) Plan the learning experiences and instructional elements that will allow the students to reach those goals. It's beautifully logical, but unfortunately it is a practice that is rarely followed in traditional classrooms:

"You probably know the saying, 'If you don't know exactly where you are headed, then any road will get you there.' Alas, the point is a serious one in education. We are quick to say what things we like to teach, what activities we will do, and what kinds of resources we will use; but without clarifying the desired results of our teaching, how will we ever know whether our designs are appropriate or arbitrary? How will we distinguish merely interesting learning from effective learning? More pointedly, how will we ever meet content standards or arrive at hard-won student understandings unless we think through what those goals imply for the learner's activities and achievements?" (p.14)
The UbD system provides a template for a better alternative, in which both the teacher and the students understand why the students are learning what they're learning and how those specific activities are going to tie in to the bigger picture.

I'm already thinking about my goals for the first unit of my biology course. There are a lot of different ways you can go about teaching biology. The most common seems to be starting with the basic processes of the cell and then working up through tissues, organs, organ systems, and different types of organisms; then focusing on development and evolution; then, if there's time, getting into ecology and environmental protection at the end. The problem with this, I think, is that students don't see the "big picture" until the end of the year, when they're already thinking about summer break more than their classes. Keeping in mind what Howard Gardner said about training people to think like scientists, geometers, historians, etc. -- as well as the UbD focus on "big ideas" -- I think this approach is backwards, at least for the high school level. If I want students to understand how the ecosystem functions -- and how the things humans do can disrupt that functionality -- then it's essential to start with the big picture.

The first unit, I think, should focus on ecology: What makes something alive? What roles do living organisms play in their environment (producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers, etc.)? How do these different organisms interact with each other, and how do nutrients and energy flow through the system? These are questions that students can tackle without understanding the nitty-gritty details of how organisms are put together, and having this "big picture" in place will make things easier when I get to the other big topics that I want to cover, homeostasis (how do organisms maintain themselves within their specific niche?) and evolution (how do species change in response to changes in their environment and its available niches?). It may well be that, as Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution; however, in terms of putting information about biological systems into a "big picture" narrative that the students can grasp, it is equally true that nothing makes sense except in light of ecology. I look forward to continuing to develop my plans for this first unit as I delve further into the details of the UbD process.


Howard Gardner is a developmental psychologist who is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences -- the idea that there are at least seven or eight different metrics for intellect, and that a person who is strong in one area (such as logical reasoning) may be weak in others (such as musical aptitude or interpersonal awareness). Gardner has long been a critic of education systems that treat "IQ" (logical/mathematical intelligence) as the be-all and end-all of human thinking, and has called for educators to look for opportunities to engage students' other types of intelligence in order to keep them interested, active, and (most importantly) learning.

In The Disciplined Mind, though, Gardner only touches lightly on his multiple-intelligence theory; this time he has other fish to fry. His target is the mainstream education system and its obsession with coverage -- the idea that students have to accumulate a certain number of facts, about everything from the Mayflower to mitochondria, and be able to regurgitate them on command in a standardized test. This, according to mainstream thought, is what it means to be "educated" -- and Gardner calls B.S. on the whole notion.

The problem with education in this country isn't that we don't have enough facts. 21st-century humanity is inundated with facts; thanks to the Internet, we are essentially drowning in a sea of data. The problem is that, as my own history professor once said, "Facts without theory are trivia." If students cram their heads full of information but never learn how to process it properly -- how to think critically and sort good data from bad -- they'll never be able to use that information in any practical way. And when humans are faced with a bunch of facts they can't interpret, they'll usually throw up their hands and "go with their gut" -- falling back on the same flawed premises and mistaken notions that they formed in their early childhood. This is why an examination of MIT physics grads found that, just one year after graduation, they were no better at solving basic physics problems than a group of younger students who had never even taken a physics course.

Gardner proposes a better way: instead of focusing on "covering" topics, teachers should focus on un-covering the modes of thought that are necessary to interpret data correctly. By focusing on a small number of topics and going into them deeply, teachers can help their students to understand how to think like a scientist, or a mathematician, or a historian, or an art critic. Going deeply into a topic is the only way to expose the flawed thinking that lies deep in the student's mind -- at which point it can be replaced with something better.

"Better", in Gardner's way of thinking, means helping students to discern between accurate information and false information, to recognize and appreciate beauty, and to build a moral compass that will distinguish between ethical and unethical behavior. Gardner summarizes these objectives as the pursuit of "the true, the beautiful and the good." A student who learns how to recognize truth (and falsehood), beauty (and ugliness), and goodness (and evil) will have the necessary mental tools to deal with any data set that he or she may encounter. Once you've learned what it means to think like a scientist, for example, you can apply the same tools whether you're studying biology, chemistry, physics, etc. The same goes for appreciating art or interpreting historical events: the details change, but the disciplines themselves are consistent.

This is an extraordinary book. While Gardner's writing style is dense to the point of being baroque, the principles that he puts forward are ones that I think every educator (and every lawmaker) needs to grasp. He has put his finger on exactly the problem that made me so discontented with aspects of my own undergraduate education. The course that I found least satisfying (Genetics) was a barrage of facts and trivia with little to interconnect them; the professor covered many topics in only enough detail to let us answer questions on the GRE standardized test, without bothering to explain their deeper significance. I did well in the class, but only because of my own talent for storing large amounts of trivial data; I didn't actually understand much more after leaving the class than I did when I first entered it. By contrast, my organic chemistry professor focused on teaching mechanisms and processes; while there was a lot of memorization, it all fit together into a larger conceptual framework, and even years later I can still recognize the different types of reactions that he taught us to look for, even if the precise reactants in question are new to me.

Gardner is less than enthusiastic about the idea of charter schools -- he would prefer to see a nationwide education system that used his technique, or a small number of competing national programs that put their emphasis on different styles of teaching. (Given his own fascination with evolution, perhaps he is hoping that his "discipline-focused" schools will eventually achieve dominance through natural selection, while the coverage-obsessed schools go"extinct.") Still, he does acknowledge that charter schools have the opportunity to experiment with new techniques and methodologies. Hopefully ARISE High School can serve as a model for how a "disciplined" education can be successful.. The strategies and ideals Gardner espouses are right in line with the sort of education that I hope to give my students; I look forward to the opportunity to teach them the path of "the true, the beautiful and the good."

MASTERY, by George Leonard

One of our two required "leadership readings" for the Reach Pre-Service Summer Coursework, Mastery is a short and elegantly-written book in which George Leonard -- former Army Air Force flight instructor and Aikido master -- puts forth a set of deceptively simple rules on how to live your life. He points out that most people, upon trying to learn a new skill, fall into one of three categories:

  1. The Dabbler: Jumps into a new venture with great enthusiasm, but loses interest when he soon hits a "plateau" of acheivement. Discouraged, he abandons the enterprise, only to jump into the next thing that strikes his fancy and repeat the process.
  2. The Obsessive: Impatient with the "plateaus" of achievement, the Obsessive pushes herself night and day in an effort to recapture the sudden burst of growth that she first experienced. Her performance becomes erratic as she tries to rush the process of improvement, until eventually she burns out -- physically, emotionally, or both.
  3. The Hacker: The Hacker doesn't care about pursuing excellence; he just wants to play around with the skill. Unlike the Dabbler, he doesn't get discouraged when he hits a plateau, but he doesn't push himself keep learning and growing either; beyond a certain point, his performance remains flat. He may only practice his skills occasionally, enough to maintain that plateau where he leveled off but not enough to press onward. He's content to "know enough to be dangerous" without going deeper into the pursuit in question.
Leonard puts forth an alternative to all of these paths: the path of Mastery. The Master sets up a regular practice in the skill in question and pursues that practice for its own sake. The discipline itself becomes its own reward. Along the way, the Master encounters bursts of measurable improvement followed by long periods on the plateaus; but rather than give up, obsess over continued improvement, or become content with mediocrity, the Master continues the regular, steady discipline, embracing growth when it occurs but also embracing the periods of apparent stagnation (which are actually the points when you're integrating everything you've learned to the point where it becomes second nature -- an essential step on the road to further improvement).

As Leonard points out, you can apply these different "paths" to any pursuit in life, and you needn't follow the same path in everything. Looking at my own life, I can see that I've been a Dabbler at art and a Hacker at guitar-playing. I'd like to say I've approached my writing in accordance with the path of mastery, but I've been a bit too erratic in my writing schedule for that to be strictly true; I think I alternate between periods of Mastery and Hackerdom where writing is concerned. The important thing is to recognize the pursuits that you really care about being better at and then pursuing the path of mastery in those disciplines, because that's the only way to keep improving over long periods of time without getting burned out.

One of the most eye-opening parts of the book was chapter three, "America's War Against Mastery." Leonard pointed out that our entire popular culture is based around a value system that scorns the path of mastery. This is particularly obvious in commercial advertisements and television shows:

"Keep watcing, and an underlying pattern will emerge. About half of the commercials, whatever the subject mater, are based on a climactic moment: The cake has already been baked; the family and guests, their faces all aglow, are gathered around to watch an adorable three-year-old blow out the candles. The race is run and won; beautiful young people jump up and down in ecstasy as they reach for frosted cans of diet cola. Men are shown working at their jobs for all of a second and a half, then it's Miller time. Life at its best, these commercials teach, is an endless series of climactic moments.
"...In all of this, the specific content isn't nearly as destructive to mastery as is the rhythm. One epiphany follows another. One fantasy is crowded out by the next. Climax is piled upon climax. There's no plateau." (pp. 23-29)

This fantasy of endless upward progress is insidious because it doesn't match up with the way things actually work in reality. Driven to find the sort of life that we see on TV, we either work ourselves to exhaustion or seek shortcuts to excellence. The recent steroid scandal in baseball and the collapse of the mortgage industry are both examples of what can happen when people follow the siren song of Better, Faster, More!

I found this book greatly inspiring because of the firm but gentle way it encourages the reader to get on the path to mastery and stay on it. The acknowledgement that we can't (and won't) keep growing in a steady upward rise is refreshing and liberating; it's right and natural to find yourself "stuck on the plateau." The admonishment to keep pressing onward, to find your rewards in the daily practice of your craft rather than losing heart or obsessing over the next burst of improvement, is a lesson that can be applied to any area of life. It's a lesson that I plan to embrace as I move forward with my career as a teacher.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Off to start my new life...

As I sit here, nearly all of my worldly goods are packed up in my car and trailer, awaiting transport to California. Tomorrow morning I set out for Chicago, my first stop, where I'll be visiting with two of my fellow podcasters. Subsequent stops will take me to Springfield (MO), Denver, Albuquerque, and Phoenix, before finally arriving in the Bay Area on July 31st.

I've been busy over the last week and a half working on the reading for my REACH Pre-Service program. Last Saturday I finished The Disciplined Mind, which is an excellent book that I heartily recommend to anyone interested in education. I'll post my thoughts on the book in more detail in a later post. Right now I'm working on Mastery, a book written by a former Army Air Force pilot and aikido instructor -- the premise of which is that there is a distinct path to self-improvement that requires us to love the process of self-improvement. We have to embrace the journey even when we're not seeing results, because the practice itself is its own reward. I can speak to the truth of this on a number of levels, particularly in playing guitar and writing fiction. I'm a bit more than a third of the way through the book and greatly enjoying it; I look forward to continuing to digest it over the course of my travels.

Once I arrive in Cali I'll be staying with a friend in Palo Alto until my room in Berkeley becomes available on August 4th. Her house is quiet and beautiful and has a lot of space in which to work, which will give me a great opportunity to focus in on my remaining coursework and crank through it quickly and steadily. I haven't been able to spend as much time on the coursework as I would have liked to thus far -- my previous day job, which ended yesterday, and the work of getting ready to move cross-country have utterly devoured my time -- so I'm looking forward to the chance to be alone with the books, with no greater responsibility than to absorb this material and prepare for the career that awaits me.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My ideal biology class...

I spent the weekend working on my elective book from the annotated book list: The Disciplined Mind, by Howard Gardner. I'm about halfway through it now -- it's dense but scintillating reading, and he's definitely captured my loyalty with his call to teach students "the true, the beautiful and the good."

One of the things Gardner points out is that it's impossible to cover everything that there is to know about any field of study, so any approach to teaching that is based ultimately on hitting a certain number of content-based guideposts is falling short of its potential. Facts leak out of students' ears as soon as they take the test; the real challenge is to confront and correct underlying misconceptions in thinking, to teach people to think like scientists (or geometers, or historians, or what have you). He draws comparison to athletics and music: it's not so important that the student of these disciplines be able to describe a particular football play in detail or play an exact copy of a master's performance of a given piece, but that they learn the underlying techniques, concepts and skills that will allow them to tackle a wide variety of possible situations. Breadth of coverage is not as important as depth, because it is only by sinking deeply into a subject that you will discover your flawed thinking and be able to correct it.

To that end, Gardner and his colleagues recommend projects in which learning, presentation of understanding, and assessment are all rolled together. There are no secret tests at the end of the unit, but rather students are coached throughout the course in the preparation of a presentation that will demonstrate what they have learned. Along the way they have the opportunity to ask questions and receive clarification, and the teachers can work with the students to expand their thinking and point out the misconceptions when they crop up. The final presentation is a source of pride for the students, rather than a source of apprehension. (I should note that this somewhat mimics my experience in grad school: my thinking was corrected along the way by my thesis committee, and the day when I stood before my classmates and teachers and presented the results of my research was the proudest day of my academic career.) Most importantly, the students should be able to take the concepts that they have learned and apply them to a new situation; this is the true assessment of whether learning has taken place.

As I was pondering these things, an idea for a biology curriculum came to me: Organize the entire semester around the theme of an alien world, being explored by humans for the first time. Students would be divided into teams, and at the end of the year each team would present information about a species that they had invented to inhabit this world. The students would play the role of the xenobiologists exploring this world, giving their reports the people of Earth on what they've found.

Each species would have a specific ecological niche, key adaptations that allowed it to exploit that niche, and an interaction web with the other species. (Who eats whom? Which species compete with each other, and how? Are any of them keystone species, and why?) I would give the students some basic information about the world for starters: key biomes and the producers found there, key environmental challenges found in the different biomes (which the animals would have to adapt to), and key species found in the fossil record (from which our various modern species would be descended). The students would have to demonstrate how the different species might be related, and which adaptations arose when. (If three species have eyestalks of the same general configuration, do they all come from the same ancestor? What role did the eyestalks serve for that ancestor? Do they serve the same role now, or have the species adapted that trait to serve other purposes?)

As the piece de resistance, the students would have to confront ecological questions about this alien world. If human colonists cut down the chuwumba trees for building materials, how will that affect the other species in the ecosystem? If they discover that the pink-toed crinklehump is good for eating, what other predators that feed on the crinklehumps might be affected? If humans accidentally bring rats with them on the colony ship, what native species might be endangered by this invasive species? The answers that the students give to these questions will demonstrate what they have learned about the concepts they have studied.

For this to work, the students will have to learn the basic concepts of three major areas of biology: homeostasis (how animals stay alive), evolution (how populations change in response to changes in their environment), and ecology (how organisms in a system interact with each other). The students will study specific examples in each of these areas of focus and use them to think about their hypothetical alien species. By the end of the course, the students should be well-versed enough in the concepts driving each of these areas to be able to construct their alien world -- and the presentation at the end will be a great way to show off to the parents and the other students what these kids have learned.

So, what do you all think? Am I on the right track here?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Reach Daily Classroom Practices

For this assignment we compared the "must-have" classroom practices from the previous post to the requirements used on Reach's classroom observation form.

For the most part, the guidelines match up with the things I mentioned: setting expectations, having a daily schedule, setting up routines and procedures, making sure that classroom materials are well-organized and accessible to the students, etc. The Reach guidelines did mention some things that I left off:

Clearly posting daily homework assignments: This seemed such an obvious practice that I didn't even think about it in terms of a "must-have" element of classroom/instructional procedure.

Posting student work / exemplars of student work: This is a great idea, when the assignment's nature allows the work to be displayed. Posters presenting various scientific concepts would be a great example of this.

Student activities encourage movement around the room: An interesting idea. Many lab experiments require working at one's own station -- you don't want to be moving around much when you're doing a dissection, for example. Incorporating elements of movement and activity is definitely something that could be done with some times of activities, though, and it's something I'll keep in mind as a way to break up monotony.

Teacher moves around the room: Again, this seemed to go without saying, from my perspective. I can't imagine not circulating around the room and checking in with my students as the activities progress.

Scoring rubrics are displayed/provided: The word "rubric" apparently has a very specific meaning in the education community, one that is unfamiliar to those of us who were trained primarily in the sciences. (I knew only the dictionary definitions of the term: a category of classification, or an established rule, tradition or custom.) Having looked up a definition of the term as it is used by educators, I can agree that it would be useful; certainly as a student I would have appreciated having a set of guidelines that showed what constituted an excellent, good, average, or poor grasp of the material. Playing fair with the students is important, and these "rubrics" seem to be a good way to show students what we're expecting of them.

On the whole, I think that Reach's evaluation form matches up well with what I would have expected. It doesn't make any mention of the sorts of science-specific items that I discussed in my previous post, but that's hardly unexpected since this is a generic form. I'm looking forward to getting a chance to practice some of the instructional techniques mentioned here, so that I can give my students varied and interesting course material and a lot of different ways to work with it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Daily Classroom Practices

For this assignment we read through a set of book excerpts about establishing classroom rituals: rules, procedures and behaviors that should be set in place at the beginning of the year so that students will understand what is expected of them. I can see the wisdom of this: Students may simply not know what behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate, particularly the younger ones, and it's better to set your expectations in the beginning than to reprimand for inappropriate behavior on a case-by-case basis. I also like the idea of working with the students at the beginning of the year to develop these rituals; not only does it establish a social contract that they can be reminded about, but it forces them to think critically about the effects of their actions on other people. I'd rather get their cooperation that way than by playing the "heavy" because someone got out of line.

We also read a chapter about organizing content for instruction, to make sure that the material is presented in a way that is engaging, effective, and uses class time efficiently.

After reading the articles, I think the following elements of classroom management (both behavioral and instructional) will be "must-haves" in my biology class:

1.) Giving the students a "Do Now" list of tasks to complete when they come in to the classroom. I can put these instructions on the projector using PowerPoint. Tasks that the students might need to complete at the beginning of class could include getting out materials needed for that lesson, dropping off homework at a pile on my desk, stashing their bags out of the way (in a pre-designated location) when we're going to do a lab experiment, and writing down their answers to a pre-assessment question on an index card.

2.) Basic ground rules for talking, listening, and paying attention: students raise their hands to speak during instructional phases, pay quiet attention when I or another student is speaking, and stop whatever they're doing and listen when I give them a pre-arranged signal. I like the idea of raising my hand and having the students raise theirs in response to show that they are listening; it seems like a fair way to enforce compliance, and it exploits the "herd instinct" for a constructive end (i.e., students aren't going to be the only one not doing something that everyone else is doing).

3.) Lab experiments will be a big part of my class, and that means that there will be specialized materials that need to be distributed for these lessons. I'll need to develop a "ritual" for how these materials are distributed to the lab groups, and (even more importantly) how cleanup is handled afterward. This will be especially important with dissection labs; I've seen too many classrooms left as disaster areas because professors didn't make students clean up after themselves -- and that was at the college level, when students are (theoretically) more mature. Commonly-used materials, such as dissection kits, will be kept in numbered boxes or bins that are assigned to the lab group of the same number; this also allows me to prepare ahead of time by putting any special materials the students will need into that bin. It will also be important to teach the students proper safety procedures, especially when they're working with sharps or potentially hazardous chemicals.

4.) I need to establish procedures for following directions on lab experiments. I noticed in my sample lesson that some lab groups read through the printed directions and followed them closely, while others obviously did not read them at all (since they asked questions that were answered on the first page of the instructions). Some students may not have well-developed English skills, so I think a good way to deal with this would be for each team to choose one member to read the instructions to his/her teammates. This would give the students with stronger English skills a chance to explain the instructions to the ones who might not read as well, and it has the added benefit of cementing the instructions in the mind of the team's presumptive leader.

5.) Chapter 4 of "Qualities of Effective Teachers" presented an excellent idea: having "contingency plans" worked out in advance for events that are likely but whose occurrence is unpredictable, such as the arrival of a new student in the class. I'll need to brainstorm with some of the more experienced teachers to work out what sorts of contingency plans I'm likely to need.

6.) Going along with #3 and #5, having a set of organizer bins in place to store commonly-used materials seems very important. Knowing my own tendency for my personal spaces to become cluttered, things will go better for me in the long run if I set up a system of organization at the beginning.

7.) I'll need to develop a clear, consistent routine for moving between phases in the class. Two hours is a lot of time, but I know first-hand how quickly it can go by when you're doing a lab or other small-group activity. One idea that occurs to me is to use sound files on the computer to signal that the small-group phase is wrapping up; it would give me an opportunity to put a little whimsy into the presentation, and that's usually a good thing where science is concerned.

8.) Chapter 4 talks about establishing plans for student activities at three different levels: high-achievement, standard, and remedial. The idea is that students who have mastered the material will be able to go deeper into it while those who are struggling will have more time to learn the basics. I love this idea in principle, but in practice it seems daunting to do not one, but three preps for every lesson. I'll need to talk to some more experienced teachers to come up with ideas on how to implement this and still have time for things like eating and sleeping.

Those are the main points that jumped out at me while reading these chapters. Much of the information presented was very abstract and general, explaining what effective teachers do without going into detail about how these things are accomplished. The "Qualities of Effective Teachers" chapters were also rife with jargon that I haven't mastered yet, so I think it will take further time and exposure before I am fully comfortable with the material presented here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

TPE Summary

How has your understanding of the TPEs changed as a result of the readings you just did? Are you clearer about the TPEs and their role in teaching, or are you even more confused as a result of the readings?

The readings definitely helped. As I mentioned in my TPE Introduction post, most of the Teacher Performance Expectations make intuitive sense. The question, for me, was not "Why is this important?", but "How can this be effectively implemented in the classroom?"

The articles on classroom management and strategies for assessment were particularly valuable to me. It was very helpful to see someone identify the different types of high-need students we're likely to encounter and prescribe specific strategies for working with them. As for assessment, I'd never seen anyone explicitly distinguish between testing of learning, testing for learning, and testing as learning, and that article definitely sparked some ideas about different ways to use assessments in class. The article on being a culturally responsive teacher was also valuable; it really pointed out how students bring the weight of their experiences into the classroom, and it gave me some ideas on how I might make biology more relevant for students from different backgrounds.

Which TPE do you think will be the easiest (or most natural) for you, and which do you feel will be the most difficult?

The easiest one, I think, will be TPE 4 - Making Content Accessible. I've been explaining science to everyone who would listen since I was ... oh, about five years old ... and most of my friends and family don't have much formal education on the subject, so I have a lot of practice in making the complex understandable. My experiences at UC-Santa Cruz further point to my ability on this front; one of my thesis committee members told me, after my defense presentation, that it was the best lecture she'd ever heard a student present in all her years of teaching.

My biggest challenge will probably be TPE 7 - Teaching English Language Learners. As I said in my intro, this is largely new territory for me, and I'm looking forward to learning techniques that will help me. Victoria's comment about treating the language of science like a foreign language was instructive: when I studied Spanish, we were first introduced to the vocabulary, then given opportunities to practice using it in both spoken and written exercises. We were also exposed to the use of that vocabulary in different contexts: prose, music, and video, among other things. I'll be thinking about ways that I can adapt that approach to the science classroom -- though, in the case of science, I think it will often take the form of doing experiments and then practicing the language by talking about the things the students are observing.

With all of the focus on the different ways that students learn, I found this segment of the coursework a little ironic in that all of the material was presented in the same way: through reading articles excerpted from journals. This sort of passive learning isn't my most effective way of absorbing information; I have to get my hands into something before I can really feel like I know it. With that in mind, I'm very much looking forward to our upcoming retreat.

TPE F: Professional Learning Communities

This assignment introduced the concept of the "Professional Learning Community", a new model for the way educators should interact with one another. The gist of the idea is that we need to put the focus on what students are learning rather than what instructors are teaching; we have to pay attention to not only what we put in front of our students, but what actually sticks. The author of the article, Richard DuFour, emphasizes the importance of teachers operating transparently and collaborating with each other, not just on the superficial elements of school life but on content.

This made me wonder how we will implement this strategy at ARISE High School. We're a small, young school; as far as I know, I'm going to be the only full-time biology instructor we have. The concept of a professional learning community, in which teachers work together to put together course content and design means of assessing learning, sounds great in theory, and I'm sure it works very well at schools like Adlai Stevenson High (which has 4,000 students). But when I'm the only one presenting my content, I'm not sure whom I'll be able to collaborate with. Right now I have Kenny, the outgoing biology instructor, to bounce ideas off of, but I don't know how often he's going to be available to talk to once the school year is in full swing. I'm more than happy to talk to other teachers for ideas, especially other science teachers, but it seems like the amount of practical guidance that they'd be able to give me would be limited by their own knowledge of my subject material (and vice versa).

It'll be interesting to see how this is implemented. Like I said, I like the concept; maybe I'll be able to collaborate with other new science teachers at other schools who are participating in the Reach program.

TPE E: Creating and Maintaining Effective Environments for Student Learning

For this assignment we read "The Key to Classroom Management," by Robert and Jana Marzano. This may be the single most useful article we've been given to date, at least from my perspective; I have no doubts about my capabilities with my subject matter, but maintaining a proper classroom environment for a group of teenagers is an area where I realize I still have much to learn. I appreciated the Marzanos' focus on striking a balance between "dominance" (maintaining control of the class and setting clear standards and expectations) and "cooperation" (fostering a spirit of reasonableness and understanding between teacher and student, and giving students some flexibility in how they pursue the stated goals of the course). I interviewed at another school once where the teachers had to behave like drill instructors in boot camp, maintaining what seemed to me like insanely rigid standards of behavior and conduct. I'm not an authoritarian by nature -- quite the opposite, actually -- so, while I can admit that that particular group of students might have needed that level of enforced discipline, it ran contrary to my instincts, both as an educator and as a human being.

One thing I am wondering about is the Marzanos' frequent reference to "rewarding" successes and good behavior, and I'm unsure how this plays out in the high school environment. I don't want to establish a system in which students have to be bribed to learn; it seems to me that learning is its own reward, and that we ought to foster that view by showing them how to apply their knowledge to the way they deal with the world around them. Other than with verbal praise, how can I reinforce students' positive behavior without invoking their greed and tainting the entire experience?

TPE D: The Culturally Responsive Teacher

This paper, published by two professors at Montclair State University, put forth the concept that teachers need to be aware of the cultural differences between themselves and their students -- and, more importantly, that they need to see the opportunities to make use of their students' backgrounds to facilitate learning, instead of seeing them as a disadvantage. One passage in particular jumped out at me:

... teachers who see students from an affirming perspective and truly respect cultural differences are more apt to believe that students from nondominant groups are capable learners, even when these students enter school with ways of thinking, talking, and behaving that differ from the dominant cultural norms. Teachers who hold these affirming views about diversity will convey this confidence by providing students with an intellectually rigorous curriculum, teaching students strategies for monitoring their own learning, setting high performance standards and consistently holding students accountable to those standards, and building on the individual and cultural resources that students bring to school.
This confirms something that I've strongly believed for years: that, in our attempts to contextualize material for students from racial and ethnic minority groups, we must continue to uphold high standards and believe in the students' capacity to achieve. One of my pet peeves with old-school liberal approaches to social work was the "White Man's Burden" attitude that these well-meaning workers carried around with them. When you assume that the people you're working with are so far "beneath" you that they're never going to amount to anything without your help and guidance, you demean them and diminish the opportunities for them to live up to their potential. Look at the dramatic difference in results when poverty relief organizations shifted from giving handouts to making microfinance loans that could help people start businesses: the latter approach gives the aid recipient much more responsibility -- and assumes that he is capable enough to handle it. As a result, organizations like Kiva are making more of an impact in fighting poverty than traditional charity ever did.

We have to take the same approach with our students: we are investing knowledge in them, and expecting them to manage it responsibly and produce a useful return on the investment. We can learn how to make the most of our students' experiences so that we can help them grasp the material more readily -- but ultimately they are responsible to use that knowledge, and we have to show them that we believe in their capacity to do so.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

TPE C- English Language Learners

The article we read for this assignment, "Teacher Skills to Support English Language Learners," addresses a lot of the concerns that I've had about my upcoming teaching position. My charter school is located in the Fruitvale area, which is a prominent Latino community. While I had three years of Spanish in college, I haven't used it much since then, and my facility with the language has atrophied, particularly in conversational use. While I'm still better off than a teacher who has had no Spanish, I know that the technical material I'm presenting is going to have to be explained in English. As the article points out, there is a big difference between conversational proficiency in a language and proficiency with the technical language used in academic settings.

The authors state that they have developed a system for teaching English Language Learners (ELLs), the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) Model, and that it has shown strong positive results in the classroom. I'm pleased to learn that people have been working on this problem and that there are successful strategies that I can learn to implement to help these students. This article was only an overview, of course, so much of the information presented was very general and abstract. The authors also assume knowledge of some terms that are not part of my academic vocabulary -- "word walls", "semantic webs", and "graphic organizers" as prewriting activities. I'm looking forward to learning more about the techniques described so that I can begin to think about how to implement them; this is the sort of material that I'm going to have to practice with in a practical setting before I'll feel like I really understand it.

TPE C- Neuroscience

I just read a fascinating article called "The Neuroscience of Joyful Education". Recent neurological research confirms what people have noted anecdotally for years: you don't learn as well when you're stressed out.

The truth is that when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage. Instead of taking pleasure from learning, students become bored, anxious, and anything but engaged. They ultimately learn to feel bad about school and lose the joy they once felt.

I'm reminded of a story that my mother often relates about my experiences when I first started school. They initially enrolled me in a local private school that followed fairly traditional teaching methods: the students sat at desks and did assignments that were, for me, far below my level of capability. After about the second week I turned to my mother after school and said, "How long do I have to do this? I already know everything." They ended up enrolling me in a Montessori program, where I flourished until the middle of second grade -- by which point I had outpaced all of the other students. My teacher tried to keep me learning by giving me paperwork to do, but the assignments I had were dull and lifeless compared to the interesting stuff that my classmates were doing. As a result, I slacked on the assigned work and didn't complete it. Faced with the prospect of double-promoting me the next year -- which wouldn't have been a good choice because I was emotionally young for my age -- my parents pulled me out and home-schooled me for the rest of my elementary and high school education (though I did take a few college classes in my senior year to fulfill my science and foreign language requirements).

My own experience illustrates how important it is to engage students' interest and give them the chance to do things that are fun in the process of learning. It's my hope that I will be able to give my students that kind of positive learning experience, to open them up to the wonder of the world around us.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

TPE B: Learning to Love Assessment

For this assignment we read an article by Carol Ann Tomlinson, an education professor at UV-Charlottesville, about the insights she gained into the process of assessment over the course of her teaching career. There's a lot of good material in here, as she presents other uses for assessment beyond simply administering a test at the end of the unit and seeing who grasped the material and who didn't. As she points out, by then it's too late to fix anything:

I came to understand that assessments that came at the end of a unit—although important manifestations of student knowledge, understanding, and skill—were less useful to me as a teacher than were assessments that occurred during a unit of study. By the time I gave and graded a final assessment, we were already moving on to a new topic or unit. There was only a limited amount I could do at that stage with information that revealed to me that some students fell short of mastering essential outcomes—or that others had likely been bored senseless by instruction that focused on outcomes they had mastered long before the unit had begun. When I studied student work in the course of a unit, however, I could do many things to support or extend student learning. I began to be a devotee of formative assessment, although I did not know that term for many years.
The idea of checking on student knowledge before and during a unit, as well as after it, is a good one that I'll definitely want to incorporate into my teaching plans. I also like the idea of giving students different ways to demonstrate mastery of the material, though it will be a challenge to make sure that these different approaches are both consistent and fair.

Teaching in the hard sciences is both reassuring and frustrating when thinking about assessment: the facts are what they are (to the best of our knowledge), and there are certain key concepts that the student must understand in order to be competent with the material, just as a student in mathematics must demonstrate mastery of arithmetic and algebra before going on to more advanced topics. While one might be able to devise different ways of presenting mastery that play to the different students' strengths, ultimately a successful biology student must understand how evolution works, how a cell is put together, how metabolism is carried out, how homeostasis is maintained, etc. This isn't like English, where a student may express himself poorly in oral presentations but perform brilliantly in writing fiction. Science is integrative, and if you don't understand the basic concepts you won't be able to grasp the higher ones.

I can appreciate Ms. Tomlinson's comment about "accentuat[ing] student positives rather than negatives," but we also have to be on guard against imbalanced learning: if a student focuses all of his efforts on an area of the material that he is already proficient at, he isn't going to learn as much as he could, and his weaknesses in other areas will continue to hinder him when it becomes necessary to use those areas of knowledge. America is lagging behind the rest of the developed world on science education; too many students are failing to learn the fundamentals. While I can agree that student confidence is important to facilitate learning, I'd like to see this process of "accentuating student positives" in action to make sure that the students are still learning everything that they need to learn. Sometimes the only way a student knows whether he really understands a concept is when he's tested on it; as a wise man once said, The purpose of the test is to reveal the student to the student, not to reveal the student to the master. The teacher may well be able to discern all sorts of things about the student throughout the course of instruction, but ultimately the student has to demonstrate to himself that he knows what he's doing. I'd like to hear more about Ms. Tomlinson's approach -- in specific, practical application -- to be sure that the students are really leaving the class knowing everything that they need to know.

TPE A: The Thought-Filled Curriculum

For this assignment we had to read an article by Arthur L. Costa, a professor of education at CSU and the co-author of the Habits of Mind series, which seeks to analyze different types of intelligent behavior and use them to make learning more effective. This article, "The Thought-Filled Curriculum" [Educational Leadership 65(5):20-24], argues that teachers' curricula must be designed to teach students how to think skillfully, constructively, collaboratively, reflectively and creatively.

While Costa's books have netted some criticism for their failure to draw on any scientific data to back up his recommended techniques, I believe that he is right on the mark in terms of his general argument. I've long said that the failure to teach people to think critically is the greatest weakness in our educational system, and much of our society is oriented toward intellectual laziness. We like our answers the way we like our food: quick, convenient, and prepackaged in easy serving sizes. Unfortunately, the sorts of "ideas" that come prepared in this way are no more healthy than the food of the same type, and they're ultimately toxic to one's intellectual development.

The one area where I have reservations with Costa's ideas is in the area of thinking collaboratively:

Collegial interaction is a crucial factor in the intellectual ecology of the school and classroom. Collaboratively, individuals can elicit thinking that surpasses individual effort, but such collaboration is difficult because it means temporarily suspending what I, individually, think. It means relaxing our grip on certainties and opening our minds to new perspectives, abiding by and supporting group decisions that are arrived at through deep, respectful listening and dialogue. Learners must come to understand that as they transcend the self and become part of the whole, they will not lose their individuality, only their egocentricity.

This is an exceedingly optimistic viewpoint on collaborative projects. It is true that when you have a group of active, creative participants with different strengths and weaknesses who are working together to solve a problem, they can come up with solutions that none of them could have developed individually. However, there are at least two other possible scenarios in which group projects can have disastrous consequences:

1.) One of the students is substantially more capable or motivated than the others. In this case, it is common for the student who is the most serious about learning to end up doing most or all of the work on the project, while the other team members passively ride on her achievements. In some cases the lead student may actually prefer this, if she perceives that her team members are incompetent and will do damage to her own grade if she allows them to have control over the project. This leads to feelings of injustice and resentment on the part of the lead student, because others are benefiting from her efforts (or, if the other students are required to contribute to the project, her grade is suffering because of her fellows' incompetence).

It is also possible that the lead student is wrong about her perceptions of the other students; she may have a team member who does have good ideas but is too timid to share them in the face of the lead student's forcefulness. In either case, the passive students likewise suffer, because the group project simply reinforces their own predisposition toward laziness; they will coast through the project on the minimum amount of effort and allow their more motivated fellows to raise their grade.

2.) Groupthink. This is potentially even more dangerous than Scenario #1. Psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated that social conformity is a powerful negative force on human cognition; his experiments on social pressure and perception showed that many people will go along with an answer that is clearly incorrect in order to avoid conflict, social embarrassment, or being singled out as "peculiar." The power of groups to suppress argument, ignore data that deviates from their constructed worldview, and impose self-censorship on its members has been the cause of more bad policies than any other force in history.

Collaborative thinking does not, in and of itself, promote critical thinking; rather, it magnifies the thinking habits of the majority of its members, for good or ill. I think students have to learn how to be good thinkers as individuals, and to express their thoughts courageously, before they can be good contributors to collaborative thinking; otherwise, they will most likely be swept up in the silent, passive majority, going along with even things they are sure are incorrect, either because they are afraid of standing out or because they just don't care enough to raise the argument.

TPE Introduction

Today I was introduced to the Teacher Performance Expectations (TPEs), the list of standards to which California teachers are expected to conform. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory: Making subject matter comprehensible to the students, monitoring student learning, allocating and managing instructional time, etc.

The TPEs all seem important -- I can't pick any one of them as being "irrelevant", since I can see the usefulness and applicability of each. If I had to pick one that stands out as particularly critical, though, it is TPE5: Student Engagement. A teacher must know what the academic goals are, shape the presentation of the material in order to keep the students active and engaged, monitor their progress, and -- key phrase here -- extend student thinking. This, to me, is crucial: not just teaching content, but teaching students how to think critically about that content. All of the data in the world is useless if you don't have the skills to process it, filter it, analyze it, and draw conclusions about it. Keeping students' minds engaged in the learning process in an active way is essential if they're going to walk out of the classroom with knowledge that they can actually apply to the world around them.

One area I'm looking forward to receiving more information about is TPE7: Teaching English Learners. The overview of the standards talks about "Drawing upon student backgrounds and language abilities to provide differentiated instruction"; I'd like to see how this works in practice. I would suspect that science, in particular, would be difficult to learn in a language that you had not already mastered; the technical language involved in scientific theory is complex, and it can be difficult to express these concepts if your knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar of a language is limited. I took three years of Spanish in college, and I would still not have felt comfortable conversing about scientific concepts in that language, even when I was at the height of my Spanish-speaking capability. I'm curious to see what tools and techniques have been developed to help students deal with this barrier to the material that some of them will no doubt have to confront.