Archive | May, 2014

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.

Are Traditional Classrooms Killing Creativity?

14 May

From Steve Jobs’ legacy of innovation to Google’s crazy “Moonshots,” America prides itself as a country where anything can be possible.   Creativity is increasingly valued in the business world as well as the arts.  In a 2010 IBM poll, 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the best predictor of future success.

However, even as interest in creativity is rising, creativity in youth is dropping off. Kyung Hee Kim, a professor at the College or William and Mary, documented a continuous decline in creativity among American schoolchildren over the last two or three decades.*  According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity declined, but the biggest decline was in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way.**

What’s causing the decline?  The academic environment, far from fostering creativity, often squelches it.  Innovation thrives in open environment, without restrictions.  Time limitations, admonitions to “do it right,” and graded performances all drive students down a narrow path of performance.

Dr. Elad Segev shares how when students were told, “finish the drawing the right way to get one point,” they almost universally drew simple houses.  The belief that there was one right answer drove them to look for the simplest, most universally acceptable drawing.  Later, when simply told “finish the drawing,”  they produced a much greater variety of drawings.

You can see a similar result with time pressure.  Children who had to finish immediately went for the simple solution, versus those that had the luxury to try out another idea.

This echoes Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TedX lecture, where he shares how we are educating people, “out of their creative capacities.”  Children are prepared to be wrong, so they have the capacity to be creative–if you’re petrified of getting the wrong answer, you’ll never come up with anything new.  Now think about the message we send with standardized testing.

This is a tricky subject, because we would never want to say that there’s no such thing as a wrong answer.  If you measure the support beams for a house incorrectly as a contractor, you have a pretty big problem.  Same thing if you translate a legal document incorrectly as a lawyer, or don’t understand how drugs interact as a pharmacist.  But we put a lot of emphasis on questions with one right answer up until children are 18 (or 21), and then throw them into an adult world where, for many problems, there are no right answers.  Sometimes there aren’t even clear problems–it’s the really creative folk who become “problem finders” and figure out that there’s a better way.

How can we foster creativity?  Giving students access to space and materials that they can use to create is one way.  Makerspaces are opening up all over the country, and they provide children with the tools, time, and space to work on the kind of projects that have been pushed out of most classrooms.

Design challenges also give students the opportunity to be creative, and to work together in a group-worthy task.  In this challenge, elementary students must design a car that will land “in the zone” when the launch it, as well as a background story.  The challenge combines engineering, creativity, and teamwork.

Even more “traditional” subjects, such as writing, can be approached in a more open-ended way.  Consider the difference between giving students a traditional prompt, “write a 5-paragraph essay on your favorite summer activity, due tomorrow” (controlling the subject and the format) with a workshop-type approach to writing: “take two-four weeks to work on a piece about a moment in your life that stands out” (open timeline, subject, and form.)  No one is suggesting we don’t teach children some rules within the open structure–complete sentences, paragraphs that make sense, cutting out empty filler–but there’s room for creativity even as you teach the basics.

There’s a happy compromise between rows of students reciting “2+2=4” and a free-for-all chaos of children working on projects that might be inventive, but seem to impart few skills (the skeptic’s picture of “open” schools.)  I bet if we were creative, we could find it.



*Kyung Hee Kim (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285-295.


Matching the Reader to the Book

8 May


four boys reading, from Google Images

four boys reading, from Google Images

My husband is an occasional, sometimes outright reluctant, reader.  If he doesn’t really love a book, he’d rather play on his iPhone or troll Reddit for random facts than read a longer text.  But recently, my dad recommended he read Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy, The Way of Kings, and he was hooked.  As he enthusiastically shared his thoughts about the novel, it occurred to me that he was doing exactly the kind of deep reading work I want my students to do.  Making connections between texts.  Noticing themes and symbols. And most importantly, reading every free moment he had.

My husband doesn’t need me to teach him phonics or comprehension strategies.  A basal reading program isn’t going to improve the quantity or quality of what he reads.  What he needs are thoughtful book recommendations from someone who knows him.  Those books are what make him a reader.

Reading teachers need to teach children how to read (phonics, word solving, fluency) and how to think as you read (comprehension strategies) but they also need to help children engage with texts.  Research tells us that one of the most important factors in making a child a better reader is the time they spend reading.  The difference in time spent reading between an expert reader and a struggling reader can be astonishing.  Guthrie (2004) has pointed out that the best readers spend about 500% more time engaged in reading than do the least proficient readers.*  And it makes sense.  Just like expert golf players and chess players spend thousands more hours reading than the average person, expert readers read far more.

However, you can’t make a child read.  You can make him sit in a desk, you can make him open a book, you can even make him turn the pages at set intervals so it looks like he’s reading, but at the end of the day, that’s not reading in any sort of sense that will increase achievement.  Children need to engage with a book purposefully, and for a lot of kids, it’s all about finding the right book.

The new Common Core State Standards have increased the emphasis on informational texts to 50% in elementary school and 70% in high school, which is probably good news for boys and engagement.  Reluctant readers (many of whom are male) are drawn in to informational books in a way they often are not with fiction.  It’s not uncommon to have a reluctant reader read one or two fiction books a month (a dismal amount when the books are only 69 pages each) but be able to recite an encyclopedic volume about dinosaurs, or WWII, or LeBron James.  With that knowledge comes high-level, domain specific vocabulary and fluency.

We can increase the amount that struggling readers read by providing series, like The Magic Treehouse and Harry Potter, whose familiar characters and set plot lines provide a wonderful support.    A wide variety of genres helps too.  Many a boy wouldn’t be caught dead with The Princess Fairy series, but he’ll dive into Goosebumps.

But most important is the careful recommendations by teachers and fellow students.  An enthusiastic book introduction, This book is so funny, I actually fell off my seat when I read it…and a careful link to the student, you’re the kind of reader who loves to learn about history, so I know you’ll love this one… encourages a reluctant reader to dive in with enthusiasm and engagement.  A short decodable text or excerpt from a scripted reading program won’t do that.


*  Guthrie, J.T. (2004). Teaching for literacy engagement. Journal of Literacy Research,

36(1), 1–28.


Kindness Counts

5 May
Seeking_human_kindness, by Enver Rahmanov

Seeking_human_kindness, by Enver Rahmanov

George Saunders’ 2013 commencement address to Syracuse University students wasn’t on innovation, or failure, or continuous learning.  It was on kindness.

In the speech, Saunders tells graduates, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”  Saunders shares how he doesn’t regret his time working terrible jobs, sicknesses, or even past humiliations, what he regrets are the times he could have reached out and helped another human, and he stood back instead.  Not that he was actively cruel, he just wasn’t as kind as he could have been.

Even as Saunders exhorts graduates to be kind, he acknowledges the challenge.  He tells them, “…kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.”

Saunders’ speech is an eloquent reminder of what we know–relationships with people matter, more than material objects.  His ideas are echoed in what parents care about most for their children.  The New York Times article, Raising a Moral Child revealed that

We’re much more concerned about our children becoming kind, compassionate and helpful. Surveys reveal that in the United States, parents from European, Asian, Hispanic and African ethnic groups all place far greater importance on caring than achievement. These patterns hold around the world: When people in 50 countries were asked to report their guiding principles in life, the value that mattered most was not achievement, but caring.

Kindness is also creeping into the workplace.  Larry Page, who founded Google with a culture of aggression and verbal battles to solve problems, told his top executives in 2013 that Google would never reach its goals if the people in that room did not stop fighting with one another. From now on, Google would have “zero tolerance for fighting.”  Google executives would need to learn to work together to solve problems if they were going to solve problems in as of yet unimagined ways.*  Page, after maturing and having a family of his own, realized that collaboration could be more productive than competition.

Research also suggests that kindness not only helps the receiver, but it positively impacts the giver as well.  Research by the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Riverside, found that when preteens engaged in three acts of kindness per week, they not only gained more friends, but felt significantly happier and more satisfied.

For humans, who survive in part through our social behavior, kindness is innate.  But it can also be fostered.  The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has curriculum and resources for parents and schools that want to promote kindness in their students.  Schools can also submit videos of their kindness projects.  Check out this school from Fresno, California:

We live in a fast-paced and competitive world, and kindness can be kicked to the curb in the rush to get things done, to succeed, to be-the-best.  But that would ultimately be less satisfying, less successful, and less inspiring than had we been kind.  So in the words of Saunders, Try to be kinder…so that…when you’re 100 and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.


*from The Untold Story Of Larry Page’s Incredible Comeback, by Nicholas Carlson, in The Business Insider



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