Did You Set Them Up For Success?

3 Nov

child-cheating-classroom-mdnMy freshman year of college, I took a challenging calculus class.  I was doing ok in it, but then came the final.

There were only 10 problems, and for one of them, my answer just didn’t seem right.  I clearly had not fully grasped the power of compounding interest, because when I looked at my returns after “10 years at 8.5%, reinvesting the dividends” I kept thinking, “that can’t be right, that’s way too high.”

So I did what many motivated, grade-conscious students do in that circumstance.  I carefully peeked at the person’s work next to me, and copied his work.

I got my just desserts–turns out my original answer was correct.  And to this day, I still remember that moment and wince, wishing I could have had the fortitude to keep my head down.

My school had an honor code like most other colleges, and my behavior certainly didn’t match it.  But in truth, a lot of high achieving students have at one time or another behaved unethically on their work–copying homework problems, cheating on a test, grabbing paragraphs for their essay from the Internet.  Most of them will tell you it’s wrong, but they do it anyway.

Why such paradoxical behavior?  Some people will say it’s because students are conditioned to care more about the grade than the learning process, so it’s all about the outcome (probably true) and some will say it’s because we judge others most on the actions we’re ashamed of ourselves (maybe true too.)  But it’s also because self-control takes a lot of mental energy, and when you have a mentally draining task, like a hard test, in front of you, it takes additional energy not to look at the paper next to you.

Honor codes are interesting things, because sometimes we set up people to fail them.  Willpower, or self-control isn’t limitless.  In 1998, Roy Baumeister found that when adults had to exert willpower in one situation (resisting cookies) they did worse on the cognitively demanding geometry task they were asked to do later.  Stressing your self-control in one area made it more difficult to exert self-control in another.  Putting people in a position of academic challenge, and then telling them not to do something that will help them to succeed, places an additional stress on them.  They need to exert the will to keep working and the self-control not to cheat.

So when a professor emails out a final problem set and then tells students, “only take three hours on this and talk to no one” it puts a behavioral test on top of an academic one.  A lot of people will pass it–but for the ones who struggle most with the content, both tests become harder.

This plays out again and again with some of our youngest students.  Go into a kindergarten or 1st grade class and you can already see 5 and 6 year olds covertly glancing at their neighbor’s papers when they’re doing an assessment.  Watching them labor over how to form letters and spell words, and also struggle not to copy their classmate’s work, highlights how the cognitive load, the need for willpower to keep trying and not to peek–double up.

Of course we should follow the rules and uphold our ethical responsibilities.  As a 19 year old, it was a reasonable expectation that I keep my eyes to my own work.  But people’s environments have a lot to do with their success or failure.  For assessments, that might mean privacy dividers, proctored tests, desks in rows.  For assignments it might mean more projects that encourage collaboration, or chances to revise and fix-up work.

Hoping the other person will do what you want, regardless of the situation, is sometimes the easier path at the start.  But creating a setting that encourages positive behavior is ultimately less stressful for everyone, because it allows people to focus on what really matters–the task at hand–rather than on controlling their impulses.

How to Pass the Marshmallow Test

3 Oct

Have you heard of the marshmallow test? Psychologist Walter Mischel placed a single marhsmallow in front of 4 and 5 year olds. The kids were told they could eat the marshmallow, but if they waited, the researcher gave them a second.  The test measured willpower and self-control in a fairly literal way – it put something of huge temptation in front of the children and then told them not to give in.

Only 30% of the children succeeded in resisting the marshmallow.  That gooey fluff ball was just too enticing.  You could see the grimaces on their faces as they were attempting to avoid eating it–they poked it, licked it, or just bit off a very tiny piece in their attempts to wait.  They knew waiting was the better choice.  But they just couldn’t help themselves.

We all face marshmallow tests each day, and we fail a lot of them.  Do you ever use your cell phone when driving?  I do.  Stop lights are just so BORING, one little email check (one little taste of the marshmallow) won’t really hurt.

Have you ever cheated on a test?  I have.  I didn’t know the answer, the other paper was right there, and I swear to god my eyes just moved on their own.  It’s like a tractor beam pulled them over to the side.

We know all of these things are bad choices when we do them, but our willpower falls flat shockingly quickly.

What makes these scenarios very difficult is that the temptation to do wrong is right in front of us.  We have to exert a lot of mental energy to keep on the straight narrow.  There’s a common misconception that willpower is somehow connected to virtue, that our ability to will ourselves to do what’s right shows how worthy we are (which must go all the way back to our puritan-work-ethic-predestination days.)  Research has actually shown us over and over that willpower is a limited resource, it’s like a muscle that gets tired over time.  So it’s actually a bit of self sabotage to put temptation right in front of us and then try to avoid it.

Children who did succeed at the marshmallow test used some creative strategies. Some hid their eyes in their hands. Some turned their chairs around so they were no longer facing the mallow. These children instinctively knew that trying to do right simply through the force of willpower was extremely difficult. Far easier to lessen the strain of the task, by providing distraction or creating a barrier between you and whatever it is you don’t want to be doing.

Adults do this too, sometimes in strange ways.  Ever seen someone pour water and salt on their desert in a restaurant?  It looks disgusting, but it’s a way to reduce the need for willpower.  So is giving that food to your friend instead, or asking the waiter to box up half of it during the meal before you start eating.

It’s also important to note that stress is in direct competition with willpower–the more stressed we are, the harder it is to find our self-control.  So the last place we want to have to exert self-control is when we’re frazzled or anxious.  That’s why it’s tough to avoid those m&m’s in front of you while you’re working towards a tough deadline, or to have a difficult conversation with your spouse in a calm, rational manner, after the baby’s been up all night screaming.

Similarly, if we put a child in a stressful situation, it’s hard for them to have the willpower to do right.  For example, when we pass out a difficult test and then say, “don’t look at your neighbor’s paper,” we’ve just created a situation that requires extra discipline and self-control.

We can lesson the need for willpower through simple physical steps.  I don’t use my phone while driving when it’s in my purse, on the floor of the car, out of sight and hard to get to.  Bringing gym clothes in the car, so I don’t have to go home and then will myself to go out again, helps lesson the amount of willpower I need to exercise.

Privacy dividers lower the mental strain on students of not cheating.  Now that it’s not only sheer force of will stopping them from seeing their neighbor’s answers, students can spend more of their energy thinking about their work.

We’ll all fail the marshmallow test at some point.  But we can set ourselves up for more success if we create conditions that lower the amount of self-control we need in a situation, so that we slide into the better choice rather than hauling ourselves, painful step after painful step, there.

Just Say Thank You, Dammit

11 Sep

When my husband and I moved in together 4 years ago, I learned about one of his habits that I found slightly ridiculous.

Every time he did something, he told me about it, and then waited for me to thank him.

“I emptied the dishwasher and took out the garbage today.”

“While you were at work I refilled the cat feeders.”

“I did the laundry and restocked the diapers.”

At first, I responded to his list of accomplishments with a distracted smile and a “uh huh” while I read about a fascinating new something on the Internet.  But then I’d look up and he’d be standing still, with an expectant smile on his face, waiting for real acknowledgement.

“Thank you, that’s great!” I’d say.  With eye contact.  He’d grin and move on to his next task.

In those beginning weeks (ok, years) I thought this was silly.  Yes, it’s awesome he took out the garbage, but half of that garbage was his–isn’t he supposed to take it out?  Why was I thanking him for a basic responsibility?

Meanwhile, as I did my own household chores, I found myself becoming annoyed.  Cooking dinner I would think, “This takes so much time.  And work.  And it’s every single night.”  But then, as we sat down to eat, Dan would say, “Thanks for dinner, hon,” and my  irritation would ease.  Even if “cooking” was reheating leftover spaghetti in the microwave, he said thank you.  When it was something he found particularly unappealing, like stuffed squash with roasted brussels sprouts, he would thank me for “caring about his health,” while he tried to separate out the offending vegetables from the baked cheese on top.

We continued this pattern for years.  Him, requesting acknowledgement until I gave it.  Me, annoyed until he recognized my work, unasked.

Dan’s list of accomplishments felt funny not because we don’t all want to be recognized, but because we so often want recognition  without asking for it. We have the idea that the act of asking invalidates the response.  A “thank you” not given spontaneously is somehow not worth as much–like we pried it out of the giver with the wrench of social politeness.  How do I know you really meant it if I asked for it outright?  Doesn’t that require that you say thank you, even if you don’t mean it?

For sure, a little bit.  But Dan’s constant request to be acknowledged, and his consistent acknowledgement of me, has slowly changed my thinking.  I realized I liked being thanked for cooking, even when it’s the 1,000 dinner with microwaved green beans I’ve made.  And I like the acknowledgement from my colleagues when I’ve done my job well (even though it’s my job and my responsibility) and I’m sure when my daughter is old enough to talk, I’ll like when she thanks me for doing my “mom” job too.  (I may be dreaming too large on that one.)

We say thank you all the time when someone does something out of the ordinary, or unusual.  It’s the things people always do–the routine, every day drudgery that makes our lives easier–that we forget to acknowledge.  I can’t promise to remember all the time, but I can promise that the next time someone (*cough, cough* Dan) tells me all of the ways he was productive, I’ll give a genuine thanks the first time around.  With eye contact.

Taking off Our Superhero Capes

29 Aug

superman_capeWhen I was 10, my mom used to pack me a lunch that had a little tuna-sandwich making kit in it.  A little sleeve of crackers, plus a mini-tin of tuna and a packet of mayonnaise you mixed in.  I barely liked anything my mom packed for lunch, but I liked that.  The problem was, the tuna was a bit fragrant.  As the smell wafted over the lunch tables, someone would inevitably say, “ewww…does someone have tuna?  I hate tuna.”  As my cheeks reddened, I tried to covertly hide the fact that I was the tuna-eater.  It was embarrassing to be eating something that others found distasteful.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that tuna, and I eventually came to the conclusion that while it was acceptable to dislike something that others liked–to be the person saying, “gross, I won’t eat that”–it was not acceptable to like what others disliked.  Far safer to automatically reject something that might not be accepted, than to embrace something that others would find objectionable.

Glennan Doyle Melton, a mommy blogger and best-selling writer, named this phenomenon “superhero capes”–people’s tendency to wrap themselves in a cape of sarcasm, or perfectionism, or positivity–to protect themselves against painful personal exposure.  For me, negativity was a good cape.  Saying I didn’t like something was easier than saying I did.  If you reject something before it rejects you, you’re all good, right?

Fast-forward to adult-me, and now I see this particular cape a lot in schools.  It becomes stronger and thicker as children grow older.  It’s particularly thick in middle school, where making fun of something or someone before they can make fun of you is a classic peer-control strategy.  But it shows up in the workplace too, and personal lives, and it creeps into each interaction we have with others.

The need for superhero capes is, I think, deep down about the need for connection.  It’s about being afraid you’ll be rejected from a group, and pre-emptively removing yourself so you don’t have the pain of being cast out by others.  It’s similar to the strategy of self-handicapping in learning, where you don’t put in effort from the beginning, so that when you fail you can protect yourself from the disappointment by saying, “that failure doesn’t really say anything about me…I didn’t even try.”  If you reject an activity, or idea, or person first, you protect yourself from knowing if they would have rejected you.

A sense of belonging lessens the need for superhero capes.  It’s why community building is so important for classes, and staffs, and why we start with icebreakers and connectors in most meetings.  A warm, welcoming environment allows us to try new things and open ourselves up for failure.

community_circle_displayI’m getting ready to start a new year of teaching as a reading specialist, and I’m about to have 5 new mini-communities in my daily reading groups.  The kids already know each other from class, but we’ll start with some warm-fuzzies anyway so that they know they’re welcome and they can open themselves up to try new things without a fear of rejection.   We’ll make a group picture book, and write about our families, and read stories together.  Maybe we’ll have some special lunches once a month, so that we can bond over non-academic fun too.

And if they bring tuna fish, I’ll be sure to say, loud and clear, “Did someone bring tuna fish?  Awesome, I love tuna fish too!”

What’s in a Stat? Using Data to Impact Small Choices

1 Aug
salutations-chart, from blog.okcupid.com

salutations-chart, from blog.okcupid.com

In a blog post titled, ‘We Experiment on Human Beings,” OKCupid founder Christian Rudder shares how the site manipulated user profiles to gain data on what led to interactions and meaningful conversations on the site.

His post is in reaction to the ruckus over the Facebook emotional contagion study, but I thought it was much more interesting how OKCupid uses it’s data.  Yes, they mine their data for information that will help them make the site more successful (and by extension, profitable) but they also share their information on their blog.  Oktrends is a veritable gold mine of information about our habits, preferences, and our often misguided assumption about what will appeal to a potential mate (or ourselves.)

What’s awesome about their data is that they interpret it for us–so when they share their thousands of data points about what first messages gained the most traction in their post, Exactly What to Say in a First Messagethey get very specific with advice–open with “how’s it goin” or “What’s up,” but not the more formal “Hi” or “Hello.”  Express interest by using the phrases, “I was curious,” or “You mentioned…”  Contrast that with the general advice we often get, like “be casual,” or “show specific interest in the other person.”

Imagine this transferred to other fields.  Let’s take the classroom.  We give feedback to students, but it’s often a general, not-easily-applied kind of message.  For example, “Johnny is not very engaged in his reading.  He needs to focus on his books for longer.”  We have a very general piece of data here–not engaged in reading–that’s sort of equivalent to OKCupid telling users, “you’re not successful at getting dates.”  It’s accurate, but it’s describing a problem, rather than being helpful.  In fact, it’s pretty discouraging to hear.

We could get more specific with our data.  “Johnny reads for an average of 5 minutes before he finds an alternate activity, like going to the drinking fountain or sharpening a pencil.”  But we’ve really just described the problem in more detail, like saying, “people look at your profile on OKCupid an average of 8 seconds before they click away.”

We need some data for when Johnny is successful at engaging in reading to see the difference–or barring that, some data about when other students similar to Johnny are successful.  “Johnny reads for an average of 15 minutes when his book is a series with characters he knows well,” or “Johnny focuses for more than ten minutes at a time when he’s sitting in a favorite spot, facing away from other students so he’s not distracted.”  Suddenly we have some strategies for how to help Johnny, like OKCupid telling us that pictures that show activities spark more meaningful conversations on average than selfies that just focus on a smiling face.

Now imagine we give this information to Johnny, instead of just sharing with parents at conferences or keeping the knowledge tucked in our head.

Johnny, I’ve been marking when you’re reading and when you’re doing a different activity, and I noticed something interesting.  Usually when you’re reading, you read for about 5 minutes before you get distracted.  But sometimes when you read, you can focus for ten or fifteen minutes at a time!  Usually that’s when you’re reading your series books, like Animorphs or The Lightening Thief.  What do you think of that?”

Johnny can make the cognitive leap.  And now he can devise some plans for how to stay engaged more in reading.

Data is a powerful tool for noticing trends, and what works and what doesn’t, but it’s often held by a those in charge.  OKCupid has opened up some of their data to benefit their subscribers, and they’ve made that data specific, comprehensible, and useful.  Too often in education the data is vague (such as “below standard in math” or “5 on the API”) or not shared with the ultimate actors–the students.  If we are really specific about the issue (struggles in reading because doesn’t notice when a vocabulary word is unknown) then we can be very specific about solutions (repeated lessons with short texts working on identifying and attacking unknown words.)

Data can help us to identify problems, but it can also help us to identify solutions.  We can share data with our students, in the form of grades, percentages, or smiley-faces, but the more specific we are with our observations, the more our students can respond with a positive solution to the problem.


The Myth of: “I Totally Do That Already”

26 Jul

expertWhen I was just a few years into teaching, I had the opportunity to spend a week at Columbia Teachers’ College, learning from the gurus who invented reading and writing workshop.  As I listened to Lucy Calkins, the director of the program, share her thoughts on teaching and model exemplar lessons, I thought to myself, “I totally do all of that already.”

I felt satisfied, and maybe a tad smug.  This really wasn’t that difficult–just focus and work hard, and you could have it down cold.

Five years later, my new thought is, Will I ever be an expert at this?  That week in New York feels like a lifetime ago, and I can only look back with a shake of my head.  How wonderful to feel so confident, with so little actual knowledge.

The myth of expertise can you hit you anywhere in life.  I felt it as a student teacher, watching my mentor teacher lead the class.  I totally already do that.  I believed it before I led my first training.  No problem I can definitely do that.  And I even felt it, in a different way, before I had my daughter.  I know how to do all that already.

In each of those situations, it wasn’t until I gained a little more knowledge–enough to know what I didn’t know–that I began to realize I wasn’t quite the expert I thought.

My experience isn’t atypical–it’s often the least experienced who feel the most confident.  Why do we tend to overestimate our expertise when we’re new?

1.  You only see the outcome, not the possibilities.

Let’s take the example of calling on a student to answer a question.  Seems fairly straightforward.  But there are a lot of other choices that can create a different outcome.  A teacher could call on a student who doesn’t know the answer, and then have to make a decision about what to do when the child is stuck.  A teacher could have all of the students share their thinking with a partner, and then share the answer herself.  A teacher could pose the question and have students record a response, and then look over their thinking later.

None of these choices are wrong, but they all have a slightly different purpose.  An expert understands the different decisions that could be made at the “share out an answer” point, and the ramifications.  A novice might think, “pose questions, call on a student to respond,” with no thought to the other choices that could be employed, or the reason for each.

2. It’s hard to know what’s the cake and what’s just decoration.

When you’re inexperienced, it can be hard to learn from experts because you don’t know what to focus on, what to learn.  The year I spent observing my mentor teachers is a hazy blur.  I’m not sure what I was observing–from my notes, it seemed to be mostly anthropological details like where students’ eyes were tracking at specific moments–but it’s pretty devoid of anything that would lead to meaningful practice on my part.  When I started teaching, after a few months of struggling with the basics, I would have given anything to go back and watch them again.  Now, I thought, I know what to look for.  

3.  You don’t understand that what’s not happening can be just as important as what is occurring.  

The absence of problematic behaviors is just as important as the presence of positive ones.  We often focus on this in students–the ubiquitous “caught you being good!” We know the myriad of possibilities for negative behaviors, so we can notice the absence of them, and the presence of quieter actions like starting quickly and time on task.

The more expert you become in a subject, the more you can notice the absence of problems.  When I watched a master lesson as a new teacher, I didn’t know why things were going smoothly.  I failed to notice that the teacher didn’t instruct for more than ten minutes at a time.  Or that the teacher didn’t jump from teaching point to teaching point.  Or that the teacher didn’t pick a model that wasn’t accessible to the kids.

I totally already do that.

It’s a wonderful thought, really, and it’s not all bad.  It gives you confidence and makes you feel a little less overwhelmed, which lets you take on tasks that might otherwise seem too daunting.  But the blanket statement can also close you off to areas of growth.  If you already do that, totally, there’s nowhere to go, nothing to learn.  So I’ll try to change my thought to, I totally do some of that, or I can totally learn to do that, because in the end, becoming an expert is way more motivating and fun than just being an expert already.

Reform Reality Check: Just Because Something Works, Doesn’t Mean We Should Do It.

17 Jun

Research in education is a funny business.  You can find support for just about anything you want–whole language or phonics, back to basics or project-based learning, charter schools or public.

John Hattie, the author of Visible Learning and the Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education, shows us why.  In his research into what works in education, Hattie did a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses related to educational achievement.  He looked at over 100 interventions and found that almost all of them produced positive results.  Class size reduction from 30 to 15 students, for example, showed a positive effect size of .2, or about 9 months of learning, which is statistically significant and sounds impressive. What Hattie points out, however, is that we shouldn’t be comparing an intervention’s results to the results if we do no intervention.  We should be comparing it to the results of doing something different.  Class size reduction might sound good, but it’s actually in the bottom half of interventions that produce results.  An intervention must produce an effect size of at least .4, in Hattie’s research, to be at the midline of effectiveness.*

Very few interventions, it turns out, produce negative results.  One that does is retention– a result of -.16.  Seeing that almost no interventions negatively impact a child’s learning, the idea that politicians are actually advocating for a policy that does is unfathomable.  It’s another example of people promoting ideas in education that have very little support in research.

So what does impact achievement the most?  Hattie ranked the interventions in order of effectiveness.  A few interesting ones?  Teacher-student relationship produced an effect size of .72.  

That’s incredible.  And it makes sense.  As Rita Pierson proclaimed in her Ted Talk that went viralkids don’t learn from people they don’t like.

Other interested findings?  Feedback and formative evaluation produced an achievement effect of .73 and .9 respectively.  This also makes sense.  Both are tools used to inform future teaching and learning.  Too bad we seem mostly obsessed with summative evaluation right now, in the form of standardized end-of-year tests.  Placing all of your emphasis on summative evaluation is a little like closing the barn door after the horse is out.  If your teaching wasn’t working, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Overall, Hattie found that only five items show a negative impact on student achievement in research:  mobility, television, retention, being on welfare, and summer vacation.  Of the 95 interventions showing positive results, it’s some of the weakest that are getting the most attention right now, such as charter schools, with an effect size of only .20. (I would add the caveat that this suffers from the problem of lumping all charter schools into one category.  It’s fair to say that some probably produce a far larger effect size, while others may be much more ineffective.  But with such weak overall results, it still begs the question of why there’s so much focus on this one intervention.)

We can’t do them all–we don’t have the money, time, or expertise to invest in every positive intervention.  So the question for educators, parents, and policymakers becomes not, “What can we change that positively impacts student achievement” but “What positively impacts student achievement more than all of the other interventions we can put in place?”


*I do want to throw in a plug for class-sized reduction.  When it was implemented, class sized reduction created a sudden and immediate need for significantly more teachers, more classrooms, more curriculum (teacher’s manuals) etc, which schools often didn’t have.  The result was thousands of teachers hired on emergency credential with very little back ground in teaching or their subject matter, classes taught in closets or other inappropriate rooms, and students and teachers with no learning materials.  With all of these negative competing factors, it’s a wonder that class sized reduction showed any improvement in learning at all.

See “Visible Learning: Part 1” and “Visible Learning: Part 2” to hear Hattie explain his research more in depth.

How Controversial Should Classrooms Get?

10 Jun

It’s hard to imagine anyone protesting the teaching of Lovings vs. Virginia, the landmark supreme court case that struck down the law making it illegal for people classified as “white” and “colored” to marry each other.  It’s a historical event that marked a major step forward in the civil rights movement and the idea that marriage was a “fundamental right” for people that could not be revoked.

But what if a classroom talked about Harvey Milk, the gay rights advocate who was assassinated 11 months after being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.  That might be far more controversial.

Part of the role of public education is to create an informed citizenry, one educated not just in math and science and history, but in ethics and morals.  That can cause conflict with parents and families, especially if their beliefs don’t match those of the educators or school.  This conflict comes up again and again in education, such as the abstinence vs. safe-sex controversy, or debate about what the second amendment really means, or evolution vs. creationism.  What constitutes a subject that teachers should take on, and when do they overstep their boundaries?

Roy and Silo are two male penguins who raise a chick, Tango, together.

Roy and Silo are two male penguins who raise a chick, Tango, together.

The trouble is that the line is different for everyone.  Case in point: And Tango Makes Three, a nonfiction story about two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who formed a couple and were given an egg to raise, has topped the list of banned books for years.  Critics argue that it promotes the idea that homosexuality in animals is normal, and thus acceptable in humans.  Some schools have banned the book outright, or moved it to restricted sections of their library where only parents can check a text out.  On the other hand, supporters of the book say it shouldn’t be censored because it’s telling a true story, and it supports the idea of strong family bonds.

One way we to look at potentially controversial topics is through the lens of tolerance.  Schools have a responsibility to keep students safe–emotionally as well as physically–and part of that responsibility is played out in how we treat one another.  From kindergarten through high school, we teach children that you have a duty to be kind and respectful to all people, whether you like and agree with them or not.  Books like And Tango Makes Three help promote tolerance.  All schools have children who live in alternative families–two dads or two moms, grandparents as the primary caregivers, single father, etc.  It’s important that those students both feel connected to school and that other children are respectful of their home lives.

The hot-button issues may change, but the question of what schools should teach our children will remain controversial.  And teachers shouldn’t have total freedom in what they teach–just look at what happened in a 4th grade science class when this teacher was allowed to impose his or her own views:


But for some controversial topics, we should look at the outcome of education and say, “Will this lead to a more tolerant and kinder classroom and school?” If the answer is yes, let that be our guide.

Evaluating Performance When You Don’t Work With Widgets

31 May

teacherEvaluationChecklistA student is not a widget.  They don’t come down an assembly line, perfect duplicates of each other, and they don’t live in neutral environments, so we can’t approach them all the same way.  Calls to evaluate teachers on their students’ outcomes are problematic because they assume that a strong enough teacher can combat all negative influences–poverty, hunger, lack of school resources, parental education level, etc.  The idea that teachers alone can be the deciding influence on a child’s success–positive or negative–is frankly ridiculous.

At the same time, we want all students to experience a high degree of learning and educational success, despite their disparate backgrounds and personalities.  How do we hold fast to the belief that all students can achieve, but not punish teachers who work with the neediest and most difficult populations?

Ben Spielberg, a math coach in San Jose Unified, suggests we focus on inputs rather than outputs.  Teachers can’t control what their students come to them with, but they can control how they respond.  A teacher’s use of high leverage teaching practices can be observed and evaluated more fairly than whether or not their student scored proficient or advanced on a state test.  Spielberg uses Nate Silver’s example of poker players–they can only control how they play with the cards dealt, not what cards they get–as an example.  A poker players goal is to get the best outcome possible with the hand they are dealt–which doesn’t mean they will automatically win the tournament.

I’d also add that it’s tricky to know what a best teaching practice is.  You can find research to support essentially every kind of teaching there is–whole class direct instruction, small groups, project-based learning, etc.  One study will find that program produced MIRACULOUS results, and the next study will report it being a complete failure.

What most of these studies fail to investigate is the level of proficiency a teacher displays.  For example, the workshop style of teaching, where teachers teach a short lesson and then spend the majority of class time working with small groups or individual students, allows teachers to differentiate for different children and builds in a high level of engagement.  It incorporates assessment, differentiation, direct instruction and modeling–all high leverage teaching practices.  However, workshop done poorly results in a chaotic classroom with low levels of performance and achievement.

Tim Shanahan, a professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Chicago, recommends organizing instruction around learning goals rather than activities, which would be a step towards solving the “what is a best practice?” problem.  Instead of instruction being decided by a specific curriculum or philosophy, it would be decided by what a child needs.  So, for example, if a child needs comprehension work, you might choose a different learning activity than if a child needs decoding practice.

To the outside observer, this might look obvious.  But to a profession that has been inundated with “Fix-it” programs that might design a day like this:

  • 10 minutes of choral reading for fluency
  • 15 minutes of direct vocabulary instruction
  • 5 minutes of phonics review
  • 20 minutes of silent reading

…and so on, the idea that we base what we teach around student needs rather than a group of activities is revolutionary.

This, incidentally, seems like the heart of best teaching practices–using observation and assessment data to determine needs, and then basing your teaching moves on those needs–rather than following a specific program.

So what if we evaluated teachers on their inputs instead of their outputs? In other words, what if we judged people based on what they have control over, versus random variables?  Of course we want to make sure those inputs lead to positive outcomes.  We want to make sure our best teaching practices correlate with student growth.  But I’d like to see teachers graded on what they do, not on what they are given.


The Hidden Value of Captain Underpants

22 May

9780439049993_xlgCaptain Underpants is a series about two fourth grade boys who accidentally hypnotize their cruel principal into becoming the superhero Captain Underpants.  The series, criticized for its offensive language and violence, has been on the “most frequently banned books” list for years, topping it in 2013.

It’s also a series that boys love. Boys are often our reluctant readers.  They enjoy informational texts, graphic novels that are long on pictures and short on words, and books about farts, wedgies, and embarrassing events.  Adults tend to emphasize books with beautiful language, important themes, or rich characters.

There’s a disconnect, and that gulf drives our boys away from reading.  I’m not a huge fan of Captain Underpants.  I find the series silly and the main characters annoying.  But I’m not a 10 year old boy.  For many elementary aged boys, the book reflects their imagination and their sense of humor.

Books like Captain Underpants also aren’t totally devoid of educational value.  Their ability to hook disengaged readers is priceless.  It doesn’t matter how awesome the book you have chosen for your 4th grader is if he refuses to read it.

The series can also be used for some more complex reading work.  The books main characters repeatedly defy authority figures that are cruel or bullying.  Children can analyze the characters’ choices–was it ok for George and Harold to play tricks on the adults, if the adults themselves were villains?  Are they heroes even though they’re acting badly, and why? Use the titles, such as Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman, for lessons on alliteration, or some of George and Harold’s misspelled writing for editing lessons.  Have students write their own “mini-comics” in the style of Dav Pilkey to get their creative juices flowing.

Students, even elementary-aged boy students, do need to be introduced to the finer works of literature and experience a wide-variety of genres.  But the number one thing a child can do to improve his or her reading level is read.  A lot.  And books like Captain Underpants will help our hardest cases become independent, enthusiastic, readers.


A world of film, a house of stuff.

Literacy Changes Everything!

Teaching and Parenting as a Dedicated Reader and Writer

To Make a Prairie

A blog about reading, writing, teaching and the joys of a literate life

sunday cummins

Experience Nonfiction

Shanahan on Literacy

Literacy in Education


A meeting place for a world of reflective writers.

Shanker Blog


Free Technology for Teachers

Literacy in Education


Smarter Charts from Marjorie Martinelli & Kristine Mraz

%d bloggers like this: