Posts filed under ‘Pedagogy’

A Blogger’s Reflection

Five years ago, I started the SchoolsRetooled blog and began to gather my thoughts on the US PreK-12 Education Delivery System and, more specifically, urban education. Periodic stints back in the classroom have put the blog on hiatus, and it flagged quite a bit after a family tragedy a couple of years ago. But I stand by my initial vision for education reform, not as a call for competition but, rather, a renewal of the system itself to create the capacity to fully integrate 21st Century innovations and continue to evolve toward excellence.

In December 2011, near the end of my first year of blogging on, I published Seven Keys to Education Reform. In this 10-page summary of my approach to system reform, I identified seven levers of change that could improve the system’s functioning by getting more information from data systems, taking a broader view of pedagogy, streamlining organizations around the mission of educating the children, and providing incentives for common ground among educators and between educators and the communities they serve. Beyond organizational dynamics, my thesis presumed an absence of fault on behalf of any of the participants in the education system and, in particular, an end to ageist scapegoating.

In the years since then, policy conflicts defined by political affiliation have shaped the conversations among educators, much to my dismay. My biggest disappointment has been the extent to which the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were allowed to slip away and the 2014 deadline passed unnoticed. The Obama Administration relaxed the accountabilities, pushing for the Common Core State Standards and advancement of teacher evaluations. Conservatives renewed their support for competition for public schools, choosing incubation of ideas in charter schools, often with private bankrolling.

By the time ESEA was renewed late in 2015 bipartisan support was achieved in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with very little prescription for how this would be ensured. The clearest policy directive was the prohibition on any further Federal intervention in accountabilities that the legislation defined as states’ rights. The legislature was ruled by Republicans in both houses; the Obama activism in lieu of overdue ESEA renewal was over.

I continue to believe in system reform. The quiet period after the passage of ESSA allows me to reflect here on progress made with my own agenda as well as initiatives needed in the future.

On no-fault education reform

Education reform has evolved such that rhetoric is less about frenzied reactions to missed targets for student achievement on high-stakes tests and more about opportunities for concrete system improvements and real school transformations. However, the worst performing districts often remain trapped in blame-based failure cycles. They will not be able to get out of their own way until they become more inclusive in their solutions, recognizing their allies and working in concert rather than with antagonism and derision.

On a student-centered data system

Data systems have shown great strides within education, but they are not student-centered. ESSA authorizes a limited number of districts to experiment with student-centered accounting, but they focus only on the revenue stream, not really addressing matching of revenues to expenses at the student level. I continue to believe that we will not be able to manage student outcomes effectively until both sides of the equation are in synch. Once the money is at stake, school systems that are reluctant to embrace the challenge of student-centered accounting will realize its necessity. Data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness will follow logically.

On broad-based pedagogy

Software is beginning to catch up with the structural changes in hardware and data. This bodes well for implementation of blended learning, which balances digital resources with tradition methods. In addition, personalized and competency-based learning can be realized with greater potential for educators and students to share management of the learning process.

Educators are accepting technology that combines attendance, assignment completion, and grading in databases that can also support student portfolio development. In addition, these same platforms support collaborative projects that can be pursued and documented on shared platforms. Textual content is available digitally, and learning is becoming an interactive, multi-media experience. Student support is routinely enhanced with multisensory digital options and close-reading strategies.

On alignment to mission and benchmarks

There have been many experiments in school transformation; however, reorganizing the actual schools has not been a priority yet. I believe this will happen organically as data systems provide better information on student outcomes.

On performance incentives for Special Education

New Special Education guidelines from Federal regulators have shifted emphasis toward student outcomes. This promising development should help to accelerate progress toward grade-level proficiency. I continue to recommend earlier student involvement as members of their education planning teams, but there has not been much movement in that direction. For now, younger students tend to be present more so if they have disciplinary hearings than for prospective planning sessions.

On school leadership and general management

A couple of years ago, the time seemed ripe for two trends to deepen. The first was the emergence of empowered parents demanding a voice in troubled schools. The second was the trend toward education schools entering joint ventures with their management school counterparts within major universities.

Threats of parent trigger interventions have given way to mayors and school district leaders joining to speak with one voice, a more politically savvy voice that recognizes the importance of community members proactively. The university-based collaborations have gotten caught up in concerns about educators finding a back door to access to highly competitive MBA programs. I suspect the long-term solution will be dual degree programs that require admission to graduate programs in both the business and education schools.

On portable pensions

The issues around underfunding of pension plans continue to dominate the conversation, and most actions are currently being focused around solvency. Unfortunately, the recommendations are more likely to be made by those who have mismanaged the programs historically. The pension beneficiaries have continued to be called out for reasons that baffle me – they are the only people who have given up their pay to the fund without fail through the whole fiasco – and ways to eliminate funding shortfalls that reduce obligations to the pensioners get more traction than ways for the government employers to pay back their missing contributions to their employees. This is particularly troublesome when government entities got holidays from making their contributions in lieu of Social Security, something that would never be allowed in the smallest of entrepreneurial businesses.

On financial incentives linking educators to performance

As I stated originally, validated educator effectiveness reports need to precede merit-based pay. There has been significant progress in teacher evaluations and leadership performance assessment. However, there is more work to be done, which necessitates postponing this objective for a while longer. The recent developments in technology cited above should offer greater options for multiple measures of educator performance, a key to getting beyond controversial value-added test scores as the proxy for overall effectiveness in schools.

On valuing people of all ages

The fervor has died down over targeting veteran teachers as the source of all evil in education, and the conversations around accountability for test scores alone have softened. That said, charters schools continue to be organized with an unwritten rule against hiring teachers beyond a fairly young age. Teach for America and other similar programs continue to be granted exemption from teacher prep rules, giving an edge to youth-oriented private organizations that funnel a revolving door of teachers into public systems. As these groups mature, they are demanding a greater role in leadership at the risk of stifling the voices of educators with a deeper commitment to schools and important insight into the issues.


January 22, 2016 at 12:44 PM Leave a comment

In Favor of a Robust Design for Collaborative Instruction

Collaboration and teamwork are such great concepts. So why do educators feel the need to put them in strait jackets? Broad-based pedagogical awareness and ongoing support of diverse learning styles are essential in any classroom. The rewards are great…as long as educators take their feedback from the children rather than each other. Otherwise, we risk getting caught up in group think and regulating one another instead of relaxing constraints to get more flexible classroom dynamics.

Collaboration in education has become synonymous with all members of a team using the same short list of strategies in parallel while sharing an abridged vocabulary to create context for the students. It is the stuff of lowered expectations for teachers and students. Yet anyone who deviates from the plan is challenged for not being a team player. The rallying cry is that if the students hear the same thing from all of us…they will have to get it. We fail again and again but think that we only have to try harder.

A team is a collection of players with divergent skills brought together to solve a series of problems based on their complementary talents. Individual achievement and excellence get each member a place on the team; their ability to recognize one another’s strengths and weaknesses and choose to lead or to follow in any given situation makes the team function. Collaboration means handing the ball off to another player no matter how hard one feels he or she needs the score personally. Natural rivalries create demand for a coach.

Okay, so team teaching is not a run and gun sport…even if we move really fast there will not be time for each of us to be the star, nor will there be a likely win under such circumstances. The good news? Whether working sequentially or in parallel, anyone matching the right strategy to a child’s learning style can become a vital part of the winning solution.

We already seem to agree with the goal that each child achieve competence in essential skills and demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving across a large range of applied challenges. The trouble is that how we achieve these results cannot be set in stone in advance. And, in an industry that values classroom management, control freaks (and I use that term with endearment) tend to rule.

Of course, there are benefits to shared classroom practices that create structure and reinforce effective organizational strategies. However, these form the matrix for the learning milieu, not instruction itself. And teachers must plan every session to define the short-term goals and lay out the group’s common lesson, along with the flexible options for students as they engage in self-directed exploration or practice style. Then the kids get to take over.

Beyond the traditional classroom, learning labs can include online instruction or digital problem-solving opportunities as well as low-tech hands-on models. The key is to break down processes to a level at which the component parts can be mastered, then to facilitate learning opportunities that can be either synthetic or deductive. Frequent feedback is particularly helpful in the early stages of learning, but intrinsic ways to validate one’s own result should be built into each student’s expectations.

This may seem like a confusing a blend of competency-based instruction, multiple-intelligence-based design, and quiet chaos in the classroom. Hopefully the teachers are down with MIT’s kindergarten for grown-ups and the students have internalized Maria Montessori’s habit of putting things away after play. Sounds half-baked? We better collaborate to see who does what well.

September 10, 2015 at 7:15 AM Leave a comment

Maybe Predicted PARCC Test Score Dip Will Be About Scaffolding…If It Happens

Before the PARCC tests were, well, tested many educators began to predict a dip in test scores as an inevitable outcome. And another good excuse for missing NCLB goals was born. When in doubt, or under the watchful eye of accountability, blame the test. A dissenting opinion from the Special Ed corner and a plea for a no-fault world…

Do PARCC tests require that the children leap to higher level thinking without a net, or did too many of us forget our scaffolding in new curricula designed for the Common Core? Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that it is a problem when assessments change and students are held to a higher standard for critical thinking and applied knowledge. That may be true, but many of us thought we were working on building better thinkers already. And that the PARCC tests would assess the effectiveness of our work. Instead, these assessments may help to underscore the manner in which the students got caught in the crossfire of a pedagogical battle waged by the adults.

Special Education can be a wonderful incubator for new ideas for reaching diverse learners. Often we would find helpful forms of scaffolding that offered benefits across the curriculum as well as the fully inclusive classroom. Unfortunately, it is within this microcosm for learning that a new obstacle for success for Students with Special Needs has emerged from a knee-jerk reaction to the Common Core…the rush to the generic skills mandate.

A new vision for Special Ed support for inclusive classes seems to have emerged over the past 18 months or so. New school leaders in charter schools and more progressive traditional schools have begun to redesign these skills classes around a curriculum on generic skills. A sort of how-to-be-a-good-student guide that would formalize strategies in the abstract for completing assignments and studying for tests…BEFORE they were explored in the concrete through content class support. Further, this vision included a plan for its own homework, rather than helping students complete their existing assignments.

It is true that all students, not just those in Special Ed, need to internalize the strategies that allow them cope with learning challenges in order to be successful lifelong learners. But the vast majority of students need to demonstrate their ability to use these skills in specific ways first. In the meantime, the premature jump to generic skills is likely to frustrate many students. Never mind their disbelief when formerly trusted liaisons try to add homework assignments to the stack of work they are already struggling to complete.

Under conditions of change in education, a kind of fuzzy logic seems to emerge that carries its own mandate. Decisive leadership seems to call for urgent action, which sorts people into those who embrace change and those who don’t. And when student outcomes deteriorate, we all know who is to blame, right?

But suppose we were to function in a no-fault world that rendered the reflexive need to get on the winning team obsolete? There is so much that we do not know. And we would benefit as educators if we were to strive to improve our practices through daily reflection and be informed by the new tests after they happened. Then we could make adjustments in response to real knowledge, which often helps us to arrive at counter-intuitive insight into our problem-solving efforts…like seeing where the children needed different scaffolding, rather than making a pre-emptive strike that gave them less.

January 25, 2015 at 1:47 PM Leave a comment

Common Core Not So Hot of an Issue

The heated debate that is being waged over the Common Core is neither. Yes, it is July, which renders any environment a bit sultry…but the Common Core has slipped under the heading of safe binary disputes over pedagogy. These discussions are not a problem; the natural tension between standards and curriculum is a functional cornerstone of what should be a dynamic equilibrium in education. Feel free to jump in at any point. Just try not to ignore the real problems that should be at the top of the list.

I just read a cogent piece on literacy instruction and curriculum development by Kathleen Porter-Magee in the Education Gadfly; however, its inherent reason survived its goal of perpetuating the current obsession with the Common Core. The main objective seemed to be that some standards are good and others are bad, and that the bad ones are more likely to come from the Common Core. Standards that lead to manifestation within the context of a curriculum, as in the math example, are good. Standards that manifest in applied problem-solving are bad, as in the literacy example, because educators try to teach a generic skill before context.

Generic skills must become known as such before applied problem solving can happen across any curriculum. However, the skills themselves often need a context in order to be learned at the start. But then again…don’t forget style variations among students. Not everyone excels in linear thinking. Ms. Magee makes a number of fine points, but the Common Core is not essential to her argument. Instead, it does make for a strong case for a wider bandwidth in pedagogy. The students only win when the educators agree to disagree and accept more than one approach to learning at any given time.

Now, back to the Common Core…and the Gadfly’s Twitter summary that “this too shall pass.” The Common Core is a crucial element of our nation’s education system, but not because of its skills concentration. Rather it is the interstate portability of education that is at stake. The Common Core can and should be tweaked endlessly in a continuous quality improvement effort. Of greater importance, perhaps, is the notion that education as an institution can withstand any external forces of change.

Educators are resilient under conditions of siege, which is the way any change is perceived. And the industry can set up a failure with great reliability. The Common Core resistance suggests that, like No Child Left Behind, it was destined for failure from the start within this context. This is why neither can be left as an artifact of history. We are denying access to a high quality education to a large number of American children, and they are trapped in their geography. These changes must happen in spite of the resistance. The education community must learn a new skill, to rally around success with the same facility they exercise to create a failure.

July 24, 2014 at 8:27 AM Leave a comment

Building a Concrete Bridge to Study Skills in 9th Grade

Today’s high schools are becoming more adept at inclusion of Students with Special Needs, and skills classes have become a great source of support for that effort. However, the transition to high school can be difficult for 9th graders, and they may not be ready to process generic skills for application across the curriculum. Sometimes they need concrete examples from specific classwork, homework, or test prep to give the concepts of study skills meaning before they can activate strategies independently.

There are good things happening in Special Education. Students with Special Needs are being educated alongside their peers in inclusive classrooms. Higher expectations have become a reality, along with genuine preparation for college. Heterogeneous classrooms often have general and special educators in a co-teaching environment, and students may also receive support through teaching assistants or paraprofessionals as well. Those who still need additional scaffolding also may attend skills-based classes with a curriculum aligned around student success.

By high school, the quick study cannot keep it all in his head. Last minute cramming for a quiz or test will not produce long-term memory for final exams. And the free association technique for writing will not autocorrect for audience and voice. Students must be taught how to read, write, and study across the curriculum. They must organize materials and time judiciously, and they must forego the usual distractions with intent. That done, the student can become more accomplished in the exciting, bewildering, and frightening world of emerging abstract thought. Facilitating this transition is not an easy task for the adults.

Teachers, counselors, and parents must be a team as they triangulate around the adolescent’s knowledge, maturity, and stamina as a student. Each must be prepared to provide guidance, stimulation, and structure that will support the young adult’s success. Most children will figure out many of these strategies and begin to activate them on their own. However, the full picture needs to be formalized like any other algorithm for life. This is especially true for Students with Special Needs who have found comfort in a concrete world, or those who struggle with focus or executive function.

Study skills classes are based around essential skills and habits of mind that can be explicitly taught. However, the student may not value these lessons unless there is a concrete link to results. Sometimes the special educator must sit and complete assignments alongside a student. Or scribe for a writer or test taker in an alternate site. Or wait for the good grades that document the results of diligence. School-wide, classroom-based, or personalized digital systems that provide quick feedback to the student will reinforce good work habits and support organization further.

My personal style as a teacher of skills has been one of activism, especially with 9th graders. A year of bad choices and consequences made no sense to me with a child who was still unclear on his or her role in the process. I organized for a child who was scattered, perhaps hovered a bit more with a procrastinator, and got a confirmation email from other teachers on the team before I fully accepted that a 14 or 15-year-old had “nothing to do.” The last case, of course, offered the promise for that dream curriculum of study skills…the one that I hoped to enable for my colleagues who taught upper grades. In the meantime, I set goals with students and often worked as hard as they did to achieve those objectives. Because sometimes in Special Needs, the students have to work harder than others to get to the next level, and no child should not be alone in that effort.

July 15, 2014 at 9:13 AM Leave a comment

Organizing the Faculty around the Children on a Broader Pedagogical Base

A 21st century plan …unbundled products, individualized education strategies, and liberated teaching styles to facilitate a brilliant collaboration among practitioners that develops their differences in a medley of learning experiences for their students.

Broad-based pedagogy could be seen as an amalgam of elements from all the canned systems, one that cherry-picks the best of what each has to offer while declining the confinement of the packaged deal. It begins with the picture of the educated child at each developmental level, defines competencies that underlie that stage as well as the knowledge, analysis, and judgment that are within his or her grasp. A wider variety of learning opportunities are designed to reach every student. That child’s ability to think and reason, the problems that can be solved, and the maturity implicit in one’s behavior…all are evidence that the process in on track.

Children bring unique styles, predispositions, and time lines to class. In combination, the possibilities are endless. Fortunately, technology can enable pedagogy with a similar breadth of dimensions for personalized learning strategies. But the human factor cannot be eliminated. There is no complete tech solution nor is there one teacher who can address the needs of all their students all of the time. Try as we might, we cannot make a call to Central Casting and order up the latest model teacher equipped with the latest fads in pedagogy. Been there, done that. Instead, a team of teachers must triangulate around knowledge, stamina for learning, and maturity in their students using any tool available.

Learning how to teach all the children, beginning with a paradoxical look in the mirror…

At a recent author event, I heard a neuro-psychologist, among other things, challenging his peers to reflect on the biases they brought to their patient care. Every consultation that arose from a defined point of view, regardless of their foundations as cognitive therapists or psychoanalysts, for example, threatened to derail the process of unraveling the patient’s problems. Commitment within the discipline to draw consistent conclusions was the flaw in the process. Skepticism toward one’s preconceptions was necessary for actually hearing one’s patients.

I could see analogies within schools of pedagogical thought as well as a partial solution in self-awareness on the part of the practitioner. Just as neuro-psychologists must open their practices to input from other disciplines, educators must seek a dynamic equilibrium among divergent pedagogies and teaching styles for a diverse population of students. It creates the demand for team teaching…without the inherent group think that often accompanies it.

For a teacher who loves a subject, the urge to move the child to think like oneself is compelling. ”If you could see what I see, you would be able to do so much more,” begets a quest that is mired in teacher-centric thought regardless of the number of things a child experiences hands-on. Sometimes a child just wants to get procedural knowledge and move on. Wallowing in the building of every cog in the machinery of analysis will never engage them. But they can marvel at the beauty and efficiency of the smoothly functioning algorithm. Conversely, memorizing words and equations sets up cognitive conflict for a child who is driven internally to prove theorems. The procedure begs to be challenged, the exceptions rooted out.

Dispensing with the normative language around style…

Historically, directors of instruction have often become married to pedagogical approaches like serial monogamists, finding early adopters of a learning system, then letting professional development be driven toward co-opting the rest of the faculty until all have capitulated…by which point the strategy has achieved obsolescence. The process is exhausting and breeds failed teachers, those without the resilience to let others repeatedly reinvent them without their permission.

Added to the conundrum is the simple fact that teachers do not necessarily enjoy teaching outside of their own comfort zones. Yes, teachers who remain in the profession for the long haul need to be prepared to grow and stay ahead of the curve. And they need a combination of options for horizontal and vertical mobility to learn from new challenges and broaden their experiential knowledge. But preferred contexts for their work may persist. This does not have to be a problem.

We may well be finding ourselves in the zone for brilliant collaboration among educators…one that matches complementary skills among teachers to better reach the children. Evidence is emerging that we have been neglecting memory, for example; we definitely have struggled over deep versus broad knowledge; and we may have spiraled our way out of our students’ bandwidths at times. And we have discarded education practices that had become cumbersome rituals when we have apps to revitalize the essence of their lessons. Our collective memory for pedagogy, coupled with modern tools of the trade, should prove to be a potent force.

June 26, 2014 at 9:02 PM Leave a comment

Finding the Gestalt in Competency-Based Learning

Experience gets rewarded with cynicism…but that does not mean one has to discard visions from pedagogical ivory towers. A total program of competency-based learning, for example, would inevitably lead to tracking of students based on ability. And, more importantly, students moving more slowly could have a natural tendency toward inertia, identifying with their peers at the slow table and losing motivation. That is not what the literature promised. But don’t throw out the book…just close it before it becomes a problem.

The doctrine of manifest destiny is the dark underbelly of educational inequity. As educators we must guard against elitism and learning strategies that sort out winners and losers in predictable ways. Competency-based learning theory seems sound, but untamed by counter-balancing efforts to sustain heterogeneity, it may do damage to the very group it was supposed to protect.

Competency-based learning has been touted as a safeguard against serious knowledge gaps for students. In its purest form, students work at their own speed through sequential tasks and explorations, unhampered by the need to catch up with or wait for students progressing at different paces. In actual practice, there would be fluid cohorts of students working together at any given time. However, it is likely that a seemingly natural divergence of students could occur based on a blend of ability and motivation – both of which could be influenced by out of school experiences as well.

Now, competency-based learning is supposed to keep students on a path to proficiency, which is great. However, time would become the enemy of educational equity. It is true that no student under the plan should experience the cumulative effect of being allowed to remain unclear on so many concepts that they begin shut down academically. However, they still would be able to survey the classroom and know how they ranked among their peers.

Suppose, however, that there were a moment of Gestalt when a student working off-track began to grasp a concept so completely as to be ready and able to independently seek missing data without needing to be excluded from the rest of the group? That is, in fact, part of the promise of competency-based learning. But the diverse learning groups must be within reach of one another for this to happen. Otherwise, the service done to the learner who falls behind may begin to feel like another elitist ploy.

Enter the hybrid solution: parallel pedagogical approaches and flexible scheduling. Suppose a subset of competencies could be determined to be ubiquitous. Further, consider that these could be developed and assessed over time in a sort of lab setting which ran concurrently with heterogeneous classwork. Labs could be personalized for students, allowing a range from remedial skill-building to content enrichment. The linear development of skills would be secured and, back in a mainstream setting, diverse groups of students could explore concepts with relatively equal cognitive readiness.

I believe attention to competencies is essential. Without them, for example, my high school math students in Special Education always had knowledge gaps, and those gaps often led them to get most problems wrong all of the time. By high school, they all knew they must be bad at math, some even hating it. However, growth in competency could allow them great leaps in achievement, getting many of the answers right simply because they could successfully complete one formerly missed step in problem-solving.

Empowering students with procedural basics often compensated for a mismatch between their executive function issues and pedagogies that favored student who could synthesize algorithms more easily. Of course, this is the most superficial aspect of competency, not true mastery. Still…wouldn’t those same students have been better served years earlier with mainstream instruction that was both sensitive to learning style and supplemented by competency supports?

February 19, 2014 at 12:09 PM Leave a comment

Achieving Mastery without Pedagogy Wars

One of the keys to education reform, in my humble opinion, is to bring an end to pedagogy wars, those binary arguments that have resulted in fads in pedagogy that swing like a pendulum. Not only is the winning style guaranteed to miss the mark for some of the children all of the time…any solution that limits the approaches to teaching and learning has been rendered obsolete by technological innovation.

The new darling of pedagogy seems to be competency-based learning. And I am glad to hear it, hope it is here to stay…as an essential element in the mosaic of hybrid approaches to teaching and learning.

Competency-based learning has been overlooked by educators for too long. Proponents of project-based learning have actively eschewed its methods, presuming that it does not align well with their more synthetic approach to algorithms. Grade-level organizations have neglected it more passively in search of a common denominator among students. And technology-poor learning centers have been overwhelmed by implementation worries. Unfortunately, the result has been to frustrate many students as they attempt critical thinking without tools that may be essential to their success, undermining their motivation and persistence as problem-solvers.

So where does competency-based learning fit into a student-centered practice? It can form the backbone of a system for students in alternative education programs – students who truly have their own pathways to mastery. It would seem like a great segue back to the classroom for students re-engaging in school. It could be used diagnostically to inform grade level instruction, or as a program for development of prerequisite knowledge as students move apart to pursue individualized goals, then, come together again with diverse styles empowered by knowledge. Or it could exist within a mosaic of learning opportunities, a hybrid model of learning that blends traditional classroom learning, personalized interactive online lessons in or out of school, and social engagement for group problem-solving.

Just promise, please, please, please, that we will not toss aside everything else we know to be good for student learning. Thank you.

February 12, 2014 at 12:04 PM Leave a comment

Please Try to Remember

Memorize this: Students need to have knowledge for context so they can know more. They need an analytical toolkit and to understand when and how to use it. They need to be conscious of prior knowledge in the basics so they can get on with more interesting aspects of cognition. The greater the relevant stored memory they possess, the more exciting is the exploration. And growth becomes exponential.

My grandfather used to slip into a recitation of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner at odds times well into old age. His education was one of memorization of many things. It was a hyperbolic technique discarded decades ago, but on dreary days he took pride in his schooling. He was just another guy in dry cleaning, but he had a bookcase full of Harvard Classics that he knew by heart.

Today, any use of memorization outside of one’s lines in the drama club is likely to be maligned among educators. Drill and kill has become the label of doom for bad teaching. However, while a system of rote learning does not lead to deeper knowledge, the ability to extract a complex web of content from memory has become a forgotten part of critical thinking.

Students engage in the learning process and remember what they experienced. But there is no universal experience that guarantees they all learned the same thing. Nor is there a style of exploration that works well for all learners. So teachers have to show students how to evaluate their retention of information and their progress toward mastery of concepts, how to sort through their knowledge to validate its application in a given context, and how to study with intent. At times, It sounds a bit like bearing the fruit of memorization.

We are wired for vocabulary and concept mapping for intelligence. Learning and remembering tens of thousands of words is integral to our ability to think. Likewise, in the humanities, prior memory underlies any sense of metaphor, analogy, or contrast. We achieve abstract thought as our understanding of common themes and repetitive patterns frees our minds for the bigger picture.

In STEM, some students internalize algorithms more readily when they have conceptually realized them through independent exploration. Others prefer to be taught procedures and rules for application. Either way, the long term goal is to have adequate understanding and formalization of strategies to have ready access to analytical tools when called upon to apply them. Critical thinking cannot be a random walk in which one reinvents the needed tools through exploration for life. It is inefficient and, frankly, boring in the absence of periodic training to choose the right method intuitively and move on.

For students with Special Needs or English Language Learners, the issues of vocabulary, knowledge retention, and executive function complicate the learning process. Beyond that, students living in poverty may demonstrate extremes with memory, especially if under-served academically. For students who struggle with reading and writing, an uncanny ability to memorize details of a narrative or complex instructions may be their strongest educational asset. Asking such a student to memorize something might just put him or her in a happy place to jump-start engagement in a lesson.

Alternately, students trapped in chaotic lives may experience functional memory lapses. Where they have been and what they have seen might best be forgotten, suppressed for purposes of coping and moving forward in life. Memory needs to be retrained to overcome such blocks, and out-of-school time needs to be enriched with safe, memorable experiences to give the exercise meaning. It is not a simple matter of increasing processing time.

Anyway, back where we started…if you have an interest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Google it and find a copy in seconds. But give memory a chance as an educator. Keep classroom experiences rich, but do not forget that students need to remember many, many things.

December 12, 2013 at 2:04 PM Leave a comment

Advanced Placement or Early Introduction

To get kids ready for college, we need to expose them to rigorous courses in high school. Advanced placement (AP) courses are designed to offer college-level material to highly proficient students. But we also need to introduce intellectually challenging content to many students in a non-threatening way. These can be divergent goals. So, how do we address these needs…in the same class?

It’s always a little bittersweet when AP Calculus teachers boast that all of their students scored a 4 or 5 on the AP exam. Congratulations are in order, of course. The teacher’s students have delivered great results under his or her guidance. The concern I have, however, is that admission to that course must have been extremely selective. And that we may be missing part of the goal of college preparation.

We rush to make sure the kids who are strongest in math have access to calculus in high school. But we allow the rest of the kids – weaker in math skills by definition – to wait and face the topic for the first time in college, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous transitions of their lives. The latter group of students would benefit from early introduction to calculus…while they are still in high school. They may drag the average AP exam scores down a bit, but does that matter?

The conflict between college placement and college readiness is somewhat moot – all students will need to be diligent in their college studies. In the final year or two of high school, however, we need to take care of the students who, at 16 or 17, are intellectually ready to grasp complex concepts faster than even above average students bound for college at 18 or 19. This is not a tracking issue – which is controversial when it begins as early as middle school – but more of an exit strategy for students whose variations in ability suggest a dichotomy between advanced placement and early introduction.

As we design new programs for high schools that encourage students to pursue STEM careers, more students will need to be ready for calculus in college. There will be analogous situations in science, technology, and engineering as well. In fact, one could argue for reconsidering our objectives in most AP subject areas. As public school children achieve better outcomes in education, an increasing number of students will qualify for accelerated college courses, but many more will benefit from access to advanced content in a sheltered environment.

May 2, 2013 at 9:54 AM Leave a comment

STEM – The Old One-Two Punch

Future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians should be found among our fifth graders at the latest to realize their greatest potential. Only then will we be able to nurture their abstract thinking, the seeds of which should already be apparent, during middle school. To finish the job, all of our high schools must be ready to deliver them the rigor and the freedom to explore new frontiers in STEM.

Last night, President Obama introduced a competition that will challenge educators to develop advanced STEM programs within our nation’s high schools. At first blush, I shook my head. High school is too late. We should be talking middle school. But then I realized…why get these young people all smarted up with nowhere to go?

To be truly ready to join the ranks of scientists and mathematicians in liberal arts or engineering disciplines, students need to have their natural talents for abstract thinking recognized and developed early. College prep should begin in middle school for them. However, too few of our high schools are genuinely ready to offer students the springboard needed for access to the nation’s top university STEM programs.

STEM readiness will mean an exciting combination of academic development within high schools, mentoring from the field, and partnerships with universities for extracurricular enrichment opportunities. And who knows what else? Let the games begin…

February 13, 2013 at 10:34 AM Leave a comment

Child Find as the Catalyst for Success in STEM and PreK

Never watch the State of the Union speech in your cranky pants – not just good advice for John Boehner. As an urban educator, I thought I was looking forward to the President’s address with a positive attitude. But I kept going negative…Universal pre-kindergarten? Wasteful and wrong. STEM competition in high school? Too little too late. Then I realized there was a missing link. Child Find will be the key to success with either initiative.

My preferred approach to pre-kindergarten is to dedicate free public access to children who are at-risk. I truly believe that universal access will dilute the child-find efforts of the program, and that the most-needy children will continue to fall through the cracks. That’s where they live and where their parents are trying to eke out a life for them. Comfortable families already preparing their children for school will get a free ride, less fortunate children will continue to be left behind, and deficit spending will result in a net loss to the system.

That said, the child-find clause in any PreK legislation must have some real teeth in it. Our vulnerable populations must be served first.

Similarly, I worried about the President’s competition for high school STEM programs because so many talented children in troubled schools would have lost their way long before then. Efforts to set up springboards for STEM education in high school would be hamstrung with the need for re-engagement and remediation programs before accelerated STEM instruction could begin.

However, there are many emerging STEM programs that target older elementary and middle school children. In a better world, many more of these children will be found as they enter adolescence. Their interests and abilities will be nurtured through opportunities for exploration and placement in programs that offer appropriate stimulation and challenge. But where, in this new world order, would there be enough seats for all of them in high school? More on that in my next post…

February 13, 2013 at 10:25 AM Leave a comment

Want to Change STEM to STEAM? BUY ART!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We are in the golden age of turn-of-the-21st-century art. Really. My husband and I are art lovers who spend many hours of our free time each week visiting artists in their open studios, pop-up exhibits, or openings. It can be the most exhilarating experience to find a new artist or piece of work in the unknown zone of urban guerrillas in transition neighborhoods or the warm glow of nurturing artist lofts. The downside? Seeing the un-purchased work still hanging on the wall years later as brilliant artists struggle to keep their studios and their dreams alive.

In the Renaissance, the convergence of math, physics, art, and music brought European society out of the dark. And the philosophers gave us hope and angst. So it is for educators as we realize the need to nurture the minds of our young with STEM studies even as we feed their souls with Art. Uh, is there a problem here? Yes…the artists are still going to starve.

The schools of art are doing their part. The students are expanding their horizons and developing into wonderful artists. The arts community has collaborated to create safe harbors for creation of new art, critiquing one another’s work, and displaying it whenever and wherever possible. Local politicians, cultural councils, and corporations try to support these communities. However, the missing element continues to be the buyers of art among every day citizens.*

Art collecting in the stratosphere is not the real world, yet that is where the publicity lies. In reality, local work from very talented artists is accessible geographically and financially. Some buy one work a year for a lifetime of joy around their dwellings. For others, there is a great work that is the one-time purchase and the centerpiece of their decorating. The biggest part of the market, however, remains the underground network of bartering among the artists themselves while their day jobs sustain them and their families.

Demand stimulation is the theme for our decade. Just wanted to put in my plug for the artists. Please, go to open studios and buy art. You will find something you love, and it will make you very happy.

*(Or the local museums with megabucks expansions, but that is a topic for another day…)

May 14, 2012 at 11:27 AM Leave a comment

The End of Pedagogy Wars

A dozen or so years ago, there was a glimmer of hope in academia for teaching diverse learners in the mainstream. Learning styles were analyzed and some number (usually eight) of unique approaches was defined for reaching the whole class. Theorists designed units of study that combined these approaches, ranging from independent reading to full-scale construction projects. What happened?

Since the introduction of the New Math in the 60s, educators have been drawn to pedagogical fads. Staunch supporters of all-or-nothing swings in teaching methods have ruled content areas, and a throw-away culture has had its way with the tools of the trade. These single-minded approaches always failed to meet the needs of a segment of the student population. Eventually they would get discarded – baby with the bath water. Given enough time, as any veteran teacher will assure you, each was resurrected, once its antithesis had been explored and unanimously dropped for its own short-comings.

Debates over pedagogy have continued to treat many decisions as binary, and persuasive dialogue has quickly devolved into the usual Good versus Evil dichotomy. While this would seem to be wrong intuitively, research often has supported the conclusion that the most recently released version of teaching was better. What could be wrong with that?

The paradox of the short-term blip in achievement in responses to any new strategy accounts for part of the problem. Essentially, students who were receptive to a particular strategy would internalize it and activate it independently with repeated exposure; less receptive students would be neutral or worse. Over time, the strategy would grow stale, and any valid innovation would have a better chance of stimulating learning, especially if it hit the mark with children who were underserved by the previous technique. All the same, confetti would fly heralding the discovery of the new magic bullet for education woes.

The greater flaw has been the limited bandwidth for learning styles, processing speeds, and vehicle preferences. Pedagogical swings or biases have prevented access to meaningful lessons for some of the students all of the time. A more robust model of student engagement and choice could keep the whole menu of learning strategies in the mix with less risk of overexposure. Versions of “broadband” learning, such as the Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model or Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, have appealed to academics but found limited success in K-12 schools. I suspect that early innovators had difficulty implementing them within the context of technological support and traditional classroom management.

Today, the time is ripe to revisit the case for teaching every child by design. Technology has become ubiquitous with a wide variety of platforms and applications. Accountability for special populations has exposed shortcomings in inclusiveness of education systems. And scrutiny of teachers has led to a mixture of sharp criticism as well as heightened support for valiant efforts. A longer vision will allow us to exploit these challenges and opportunities for our own growth.

Truly student-centric education will rely upon further evolution of classroom resources and redefinition of the role of the teacher. The new classroom must be technology-rich and multi-purposed, or students must have access to alternatives in the form of dedicated activities rooms or virtual learning opportunities. Teachers will need to release control over instruction in favor of milieu design, coordination of the learning workshop, and guidance of student decision-making, as well as observation and feedback. Educators need not worry about discarding teaching methods. Let the children try them all to see what works. Best practices match strategies to learners; they should never limit the field.

Reinvention of the teacher is not a personal quality issue so much as an opportunity to diversify skills and take professional risks. Knowledge cannot be personified in a single teacher, nor can complex lesson plans be developed and applied in isolation. Collaboration and interdependence among educators will be crucial.  Deep knowledge of content and pedagogy will remain essential; however, the ability to work in a team and foster self-advocacy in students will be equally important. Individual variations arising from professional experience, style preference, or demographic factors must be seen as sources of insight rather than divisiveness.

December 7, 2011 at 9:57 PM Leave a comment

Symphonies Simplified

Great music for new musicians may be out there if we could get the community of performers to share their translations.

In a recent Education Week article, Peter DeWitt’s guest blogger, music teacher Michael Albertson, shared his frustration with the dearth of sources of music for beginner instruction that is authentic for high school students. Oddly enought, this reminded me of a tour I once took through the Boston Ballet’s studios.

One of the most intriguing revelations on the tour was a music studio in which someone was translating a symphony into a single melodic rhythm for the piano. The purpose was to distill the music to be played by the full orchestra into its essence for purposes of choreography and dance rehearsal. Suppose one were to use it for the reverse – a simple piece to help beginners connect to great orchestral music.

With the accelerated evolution of technology, the procedure I described must be way out of date – not even *last* year. However, there should be a treasure trove of work out there that could be a joy to hear on any instrument…even played by a beginner. Any sources out there?

September 30, 2011 at 7:45 AM Leave a comment

Scientists and Other Critical Thinkers

Educators may not abdicate responsibility for STEM education. All the scientists in the world cannot do their jobs and teach the children in K-12 schools. But a relatively small cadre of volunteers can create a pipeline of promising young scientific thinkers from every demographic whom they would call their own.

Seems like all scientists are from Missouri, the Show-Me State. This need for evidence of student preparation is driving a two-pronged approach to STEM improvements in education. One is highly visible, but not scalable, mentoring by scientists for future scientists in extended day programs throughout public education. The other is a systematic development of capacity in math, science, technology, and engineering within every school. Neither will succeed without the other.

Scientists are the new elite across the globe. They are brilliant thinkers who make things that the rest of us take for granted. They go to elite schools, they have the power to change the world, and many have amassed incredible wealth. Yet, they jealously guard their gates. The barriers to entry in science go beyond academic challenge and achievement. The scientific community sometimes seems skeptical to the point of chauvinism when considering newcomers.

Educators need help opening doors for their students; they also need help integrating 21st century STEM innovations across the curriculum. Many students have limited access to the world of scientific discovery beyond electronic devices. All students need opportunities for exploration that fosters deep mechanical and intellectual engagement, crucial building blocks for higher order thinking. To remedy the situation, a number of successful after school programs have brought professionals from the scientific community to introduce real world problem solving opportunities for students. As partners, these corporate citizens share content knowledge and skills from applied math and science with support from teachers who offer pedagogical awareness and classroom management.

Students who develop analytical and critical thinking skills through their work with mentor scientists should see benefits in all areas of their schooling. However, this will not single-handedly save schools or close the achievement gap. What it should do is provide evidence that the children CAN achieve at a higher level and overcome barriers to access to higher education and careers. Armed with higher expectations and new allies from the field, the schools themselves are ultimately responsible for their own success and long-term survival.

(Addendum….The impetus for this blog entry was consideration of after-school programs that bring scientists in to work with the kids with a high degree of personalization and engagement. I think school leaders need to think about their intent…are they trying to get more critical thinking in general and improve test scores, or are they trying to connect students to the scientific community to stimulate interest in STEM careers. 
There is a lot of brain power and personal commitment going into after school programs. We have to be careful not to waste this window of opportunity with the scientific community. Many will burn out if they are teaching the basics to kids who are not receiving strong classroom instruction as well. Finding that potential star among the kids for whom a genuine mentoring relationship can happening is at least as important as getting a few more points on test scores…especially if we are going to keep the scientists engaged.)


August 5, 2011 at 12:19 PM Leave a comment

Boys and Girls NEED to Run Around

PE classes and open spaces have become scarce at the same time that academic accountability has risen. What has been lost in the transfer is the place for recreational activity in the learning process.

The Trouble With Boys has percolated up to the surface of the dialogue in education. It has been suggested that schools are designed for girls, hitting gender bias as an issue, and suggestions quickly go hyperbolic to the point of total school redesign with same sex tracking. However, the real gender difference is how children are socialized to deal with boredom, fatigue, and distraction. Boys move around, girls quietly lose focus without obvious behavior problems. Both genders suffer academically, but educators look for the Problem Child…not the problem.

Maybe we don’t have a problem with boys. Could be that boys AND girls have a problem with us, and at least one element may not be so hard to resolve. PE classes and open spaces have become scarce at the same time that academic accountability has risen. What has been lost in the transfer is the place for recreational activity in the academic process. Children who have time for physical activity return to their studies with greater focus and stamina. Boys AND girls could benefit from short activity breaks and reintroduction of kinesthetic electives.

Engaging lesson plans are well established among best practices in the classroom. In addition, it is well documented that student centric spaces that allow for movement during learning support the kinesthetic learner. However, the need for recreational activity as the cerebral intermezzo between lessons may have been underestimated. Further, shortened lunch times and shifting of sports and other physical activities to out of school time prevent children from having intellectual and emotional downtime when they need it. Being natural problem solvers, the children try to get what they need for themselves.

A child who is acting out cries for help. A child who grows silent goes unnoticed. Both need a remedy. I am not suggesting that recreation is a total cure. Yes, there are intractable problems that need closer study. However, we should try the simple solutions when we can, and the return to play as a way to enhance learning is needed for children of all ages.

June 28, 2011 at 8:19 AM Leave a comment

Historical Habits of Mind

Came across a wonderful set of “habits of mind” for historical thinking that was developed by the Bradley Commission on History in Schools on behalf of the National Council for History Education. Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools was published in 1995 and continues to be influential in curriculum design. Highlights are provided below. 


Historical Habits of Mind


  • Understand the significance of the past to one’s own life and to society.
  • Distinguish between what is important or not, to develop the “discriminating memory” needed for judgment in public and personal life.
  • Perceive past events and issues as they were experienced by people at the time, to develop historical empathy as opposed to present-mindedness.
  • Comprehend that diverse cultures and shared humanity exist at the same time.
  • Understand how things happen and how things change, how human intentions matter, but also how their consequences are shaped by the means of carrying them out, in a tangle of purpose and process.
  • Comprehend the interplay of change and continuity, and avoid assuming that either is somehow more natural, or more to be expected, than the other.
  • Prepare to live with uncertainties and exasperating, even perilous, unfinished business, realizing that not all problems have solutions.
  • Grasp the complexity of historical causation, respect uniqueness, and avoid excessively abstract generalizations.
  • Appreciate the often tentative nature of judgments about the past, and thereby avoid the temptation to seize upon particular “lessons” of history as cures for present ills.
  • Recognize the importance of individuals who have made a difference in history, and the significance of personal character for both good and ill.
  • Appreciate the force of the non-rational, the irrational, and the accidental, in history and human affairs.
  • Understand the relationship between geography and history as a matrix of time and place, and as a context for events.
  • Read widely and critically in order to recognize the difference between fact and conjecture, between evidence and assertion, and thereby to frame useful questions.

February 10, 2011 at 11:19 AM Leave a comment