Sunday, January 26, 2014

Teachers Evaluation of Me

Last year, I wrote a blog about the importance and value of teachers having the opportunity to evaluate their administrators. 

At the turn of our semesters, I again asked the teachers I oversee to evaluate me as their lead learner. I've always considered myself to be my own harshest critic, so the results were uplifting.

Below are the survey results and my corresponding goals for the second term.

Survey Results (lowest to highest with 1=Poor, 2=Fair, 3=Good, 4=Superb)
(Jan 2014)
Last Year
Develops and uses procedures for dealing with student misconduct that are prompt, fair and reasonable.
Monitors classroom performance on a regular basis, offering pathways to improve student performance through improved teaching.
Evaluates staff and provides timely feedback
Demonstrates awareness of professional issues and development in education
Enforces the student code of conduct in a firm and fair manner.
Applies policies and procedures in a fair and equitable manner
Provides direction for improving instruction
Manages time to be an instructional leader as a priority.
Ensures that there is an appropriate and logical alignment between what is being taught and state and county standards.
Keeps teachers informed about the school and its functions
Provides and promotes a climate for learning that is safe and orderly
Shares responsibility to maximize ownership and accountability
Accepts responsibility
Demonstrates values, beliefs, and attitudes that inspire others to higher levels of performance.
Treats people fairly, equitably and with dignity and respect
Is available to discuss professional and other issues.
Articulates and promotes high expectations for teaching and student learning
Provides specific guidance for teachers trying to solve instructional problems
Stays well informed about professional issues and share this information with appropriate people
Demonstrates ethical, trustworthy and professional behavior
Communicates effectively and openly with teachers and staff

I’d like to share a couple of strategies intended to improve on my weaknesses. In regards to student misconduct, we are examining the use of restorative justice. We’ve used it with great successes multiple times first term, and I think we can use it more. It’s non-traditional. I’ve blogged about it here. Additionally, it’s important that I make dealing with misconduct a higher priority. Far too often, minor referrals have been placed on the back burner. Finally, I will do a better job of discussing and explaining disciplinary matters with the referring teacher.

In regards, to the second and third lowest-scoring statements, my hope is to have more frequent conversations with teachers. In addition to scheduling walk-throughs and observations, I’ll be scheduling follow-up conversations (so don’t be surprised to see calendar reminders). In addition to providing targeted feedback, these conversations will give us an opportunity to discuss student progress.  After all, student progress is responsibility shared by students, teachers and administrators.

When I interviewed for this job, I said my job would be to make the job of teachers easier, more efficient and better, so I take your responses to heart.

The Game of School

This blog entry was cross-posted at Brilliant or Insane

“What do I have to do to earn an A?”

If you’re an experienced teacher, you’ve been asked the above question too many times to count. We need not look any further to provide definitive proof that our archaic grading system has failed our students.

Instead of being motivated to learn, students enter our classrooms motivated solely by grades. The good students have learned to play the game. They turn their work in on time, answer a couple of questions in class, fulfill the rubric’s requirements, and occasionally—when necessary—they complete extra credit to ensure they’ve accrued the necessary points.

The end of the marking period arrives and the student has “earned” an A. At an awards ceremony, the student receives an Honor Roll Certificate; her name is published in the school newsletter and maybe even in the local paper.  Perhaps, she even receives a certificate for a free pizza from the local pizza parlor. Her parents proudly display their “My Child is an Honor Roll Student at XYZ Middle School.” So while seemingly, everyone wins, nothing could be further from the truth.

Our current “if-then” grading system rewards students for compliance, instead of learning. With the focus on outcomes, students will take the shortest and easiest path to the A, including cheating. Such a system takes away from the love of learning and reinforces superficial learning, instead of true understanding.

By ditching our current grading system in favor of the SE2R Approach or another Standards-Based Learning system, students will take control of their learning. As Daniel Pink suggests in Drive, “increasing student autonomy promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, and enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.”

Ridding our schools of our antiquated grading system won’t be easy, but doing so will increase student learning and their love of learning.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Taking the Grades Out of Assessments


For many, the word “assessment” conjures up thoughts about all that’s wrong with education: standardized testing, final exams, grades, etc.  

But an effective assessment strategy actually eliminates grades. A 1991 study by Masaharu Kage revealed grading quizzes lowered students’ intrinsic motivation and led to poorer learning when compared to self-monitored, non-evaluative quizzes. Other studies have similar results.

Because assessments should be part of the learning process, it’s important to involve students in the assessment process. Increasing student involvement in the assessment process and detaching grades from them increases learning.

Here’s a simple strategy that involves students in the assessment process, creating a sense of ownership and increasing their commitment to learning.

1.     Students complete a formative assessment. This can be a quiz, classwork, homework, etc.
2.     After completing the assessment, students turn their work into the teacher. If you’re concerned about student confidentiality, have students use random IDs instead of their names.
3.     Working individually, in groups, or as a class, students work solve the assessment. Students create a separate “answer key.” While students work, the teacher provides assistance, informally assesses performance and determines whether re-teaching will be necessary.
4.     Students return the corrected work to their teacher who then passes it back to the original student.  This step allows the teacher to further measure student understanding.
5.     Students keep a copy of their “answer key” and use that to double-check their peer’s feedback.

By working with the students through the entire process, the teacher uses the assessment as a source of information and, if necessary, can provide high-quality corrective re-teaching. Students receive instant, specific and descriptive feedback without the stigma attached to grades.  Working together, the teacher and the students make choices about what to focus on next in their learning.  

With the emphasis on learning and mastery, students will be more intrinsically motivated and more willing to take risks to expand their learning.

Kage, M. The effects of evaluation on intrinsic motivation. Paper presented at the meetings of the Japan Association of Education Psychology, Joetsu, Japan. 

This is blog was cross-posted on Brilliant or Insane as part of Eliminating Grades Series.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Pitfalls of Learning Styles and How We Got Duped Into Believing in Them

Until about 10 years ago, I, like far too many educators, believed in learning styles, multiple intelligence theories and the like. Several scholarly articles and Daniel Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School (2009) enlightened me.

Today I cringe when my well-meaning peers talk about using—sometimes even paying for—learning style inventories, or developing lessons to account for students’ different learning styles or creating student profiles that travel with students from middle school to high school.

So why do so many educators continue to believe in the notion of learning styles?

We’re surrounded by “professional” resources
An entire industry has developed around learning styles instruction. We’ve seen the proliferation of professional articles and books, including those published by otherwise reputable companies/organizations like ASCD,  Phi Delta Kappan, and Edutopia. Teacher’s editions of textbooks frequently include strategies to reach visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic learners. Finally, we receive mailings inviting us to attend workshops and trainings guaranteed to improve student learning through learning styles.

Inherently learning styles makes sense
After attending one of these workshops about twenty years ago, I left feeling better prepared to teach. Learning styles seemingly offered a quick, simple solution. In implementing instruction based on learning styles, I could increase motivation, improve student attitudes toward learning and thus improve achievement.

For the next decade, I developed lessons based on learning styles. Students took learning style inventories. I differentiated instruction based on student strengths (wait a pain!). Yet, not a single study provides evidence that understanding students’ learning styles improves learning. How much time and energy did I waste? How much learning was lost by my naivety? 

The idea behind learning styles makes sense. People are different, so they must learn differently. Except we don’t.

OK, but what’s the danger in using learning styles?
This can best be answered with an example. John is a seventh-grader who struggles with reading and writing, but excels in art. John’s middle school teachers administer a learning styles inventory and not surprisingly, in regards to VAK (Visual-Auditory-Kinesthic), John is found to be a visual/spatial learner. Using this data, John’s teachers create lessons geared towards his “strength.” In history class, instead of writing, John draws cartoons. For English, instead of writing a book report, John creates a diorama. While giving John choices may increase his motivation, John is missing out on the opportunity to improve his writing skills.

John’s eighth grade teachers go a step further. Students are grouped according to their learning styles. Like many of his classmates, John is placed in the Visual/Spatial group. John’s teachers create lessons targeting his supposed strengths, instead of providing instruction to improve his reading and writing.

Upon entering high school, John lags behind many peers when it comes to reading and writing. When John’s English teacher requires him to write papers, he struggles mightily.   Poor grades follow. When his teacher approaches him about his struggles, John responds, “I’m not verbal/auditory learner. I do best with visuals.” 

John’s well-meaning teachers have labeled him. Now John has labeled himself.  Such labels shape expectations, lead to exaggerations and perpetuate the notion that a student is not capable—or not as capable—of success. Labeling students according to supposed preferred learning styles isn’t just unreliable and ineffective; it’s downright dangerous. 

For more information debunking the use of learning styles:

10 Statements Disproving the Use of Learning Styles in Education

I've previously written about What Works In Education, what doesn't work is using Learning Styles, whether its Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic Learning, Multiple Intelligences, VARK, or some other form. Yet well-meaning educators continue to use such approaches despite the overwhelming evidence against their effectiveness (and even possible harm).

Below are 10 statements disproving the value of incorporating learning styles in instruction.

  1. Learning style inventories make use of forced-response choices causing people to make the same choices. “Nearly everybody would prefer a demonstration in science class to an uninterrupted lecture. This doesn’t mean that such individuals have a visual style, but that good science teaching involves demonstrations.” (Stahl)
  2. Some of the best known and widely used instruments have such serious weaknesses (e.g. low reliability, poor validity, and negligible impact on pedagogy) that we recommend that their use in research and practice be discontinued. (Coffield)
  3. Recognition of individuals’ strengths and weaknesses is good practice; using this information, however, to categorize children and prescribe methods can be detrimental to low-performing students. Although the idea of reading style is superficially appealing, critical examination should cause educators to be skeptical of this current educational fad. (Snider)
  4. It is nonsense to hold the idea that some of your students can be classified as visual learners, whereas others, within the same class are auditory learners. There is simply no known validity to making any such classifications on the basis of either neurology or genuine behavioural performance. (Hattie)
  5. There is not adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general education practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork)
  6. "VAK  (Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic) is “’nonsense’ from a neuroscientific point of view. ‘Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain….The rationale from employing VAK learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research into learning styles there is no independent evidence that VAK, or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits.” ~Susan Greenfield,  director of the Royal Institute and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University (Henry)
  7. The scientific research on learning styles is “so weak and unconvincing,” concluded a group of distinguished psychologists in a 2008 review, that it is not possible “to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” A 2010 article was even more blunt: “There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist,” wrote University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham and co-author Cedar Riener. While students do have preferences about how they learn, the evidence shows they absorb information just as well whether or not they encounter it in their preferred mode. (Murphy Paul)
  8. Because the vast majority of educational content is stored in terms of meaning and does not rely on visual, auditory, or kinesthetic memory, it is not surprising that researchers have found very little support for the idea that offering instruction in a child's best modality will have a positive effect on his learning. (Willingham)
  9. There are undoubtedly individual differences inperceptual acuities which are modality based, and include visual, auditory and kinaesthetic sensations (although smell and taste are more notable), but this does not mean that learning is restricted to, or even necessarily associated with, one’s superior sense.(Geake)
  10. The vast majority of educators will tell you that learning styles are a proven fact. But they’re not. They are an unproven theory that may be useful. Stop assuming that just because other teachers say something is so, that they’re right. Stop assuming that because most everyone treats learning styles as an accepted “fact” that they are right. (Jensen)

 Works Cited
Coffield, F., Mosely, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say about practice. London. Learning and Skills Research Centre. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Geake, John. "Neuromythologies in Education." Educational Research 50.2 (2008): 123-33. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Hattie, John, and Gregory C. R. Yates. Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Henry, Julie. "Professor Pans 'learning Style' Teaching Method." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 29 July 2007. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Jensen, Eric. "Are Learning Styles a Big Hoax? What Does the Latest Science Say About Different Learners?" Brain Based Learning Brain Based Teaching Articles From Jensen Learning Are Learning Styles a Big Hoax What Does the Latest Science Say About Different Learners Comments. N.p., 4 May 2010. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Murphy Paul, Annie. "The Brilliant Blog." Annie Murphy Paul. N.p., 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Pashler, Harold, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork. "Learning Styles Concepts and Evidence." Psychological Science in the Public Interest 09.03 (2008): n. pag. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Snider, Vicki. “What We Know About Learning Styles For Research in Special Education.” Educational Leadership. 48(2), 53.

Stahl, Steven A. "Different Strokes for Different Folks." American Educator Fall (2009). Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Willingham, Daniel. "Ask the Cognitive Scientist." AFT. American Federation of Teachers, Summer 2005. Web. 19 Jan. 2014.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Restorative Justice

Our school’s mission includes,  “We are committed to ensuring each person fulfills his or her potential."

In prior years, our discipline model was pretty scripted. Incidents were reported to administrators, we investigated the matter and dispensed the appropriate consequence according to our Code of Condct.  We conveyed information. When a student did x, y was the consequence.

This year, we’ve made greater use of restorative justice. Restorative justice teaches. Students look deeply at themselves, and their mistakes. They examine why they made them and truly think about what they could have done to avoid them—both in the past and in the future.

I entered education not to simply convey information or to dispense consequences, I entered education to shape character, to, as our mission statement reads, “ensure each person fulfills his or her potential.”

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Do Colleges Know Best

Recently, we invited back ten recent graduates to discuss their college experiences with our students. As a byproduct of the forum, several teacher began discussing how we can better prepare our students for college.

Among some of the ideas being bounced around:
  • Never accepting late work
  • A no excuses policy
  • Morphing 6 AP Government sections into 1 large, college-like lecture

As a high school teacher, I know I’ve said to students, “When you get into college…”

Do colleges know what’s best? No.

Should our educational decisions be shaped or dictated by colleges? Sometimes. Without a doubt, we must prepare our students for colleges and careers and far too many college freshman have to take remedial classes. But far too often educational decisions made by college professors are not based on educational research and learning.

Two examples of poor educational practices highlighted by our recent graduate panel include the use of lectures and college assessment practices. Lectures/direct instruction prevail at most colleges, but research proves that they are far from the most effective means of instruction. Secondly, many college classes rely solely on one or two exams or papers to calculate grades, but study after study shows that numerous short assessments given over time are a better indicator of learning (Ainsworth and Viegut, 2006).

The college admissions process has become so warped and hyper-competitive that students scratch and claw to get ahead of their peers. At the heart of this unhealthy competition: poor grading practices. The bell curve, commonly used in higher education, compares student performance against other students rather than their mastery of the content. In terms of the admissions process, most colleges insist on GPA ranks, leading to grades being used to ranking and sorting students. Is it any wonder why grades, instead of learning, become the motivation?

Unhealthy competition isn’t limited to just grades, however. Students—and educators—feel compelled to participate in and offer multiple résumé enhancers. Honor societies, clubs, and other extracurricular activities have proliferated. None of this is inherently bad; as a matter of fact, it’s important that we do provide as many extracurricular activities as possible for our students. But, when students spread themselves so thin with the idea of padding their application that they become overly stressed, sleep-deprived robots, we’ve gone too far.

Sadly, far too often higher-education policies have trickled down into our high schools. It’s as if institutes of higher learning are the tail and secondary schools are the dog.

Isn’t it time for the dog to wag its own tail?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Two Conversations that Emphasized the Need for Standards-Based Grading

This past week I overheard two conversations that reminded me of the need for standards-based grading.

Conversation 1: in produce section of grocery store between a parent and a middle school teacher who I’ll call Mr. Smith

Parent: Good to see you Mr. Smith. How’s Jon [another pseudonym] doing?
Mr. Smith: Jon’s one of my best students. His test scores are always among the best in the class. I think he had the highest score on the last test.
Parent: That’s great! He really enjoys your class.
Mr. Smith: Thanks. He's a pleasure to teach. 

What's wrong with this conversation?
Simply, why is the teacher comparing Jon’s performance against other students? Assessments and grades should be used to provide meaningful feedback in relation to learning objectives. Grades should never be used to rank and sort students. I'm sure the teacher meant well and the parent was clearly pleased with this impromptu progress report, but does the parent truly know How's my child doing?

Conversation 2: overheard at a basketball game

Parent: Did you get your test back?
Middle school student: (Sheepishly) Yes.
(Parent tilts her head and gives her daughter “the eye.”)
Student: I got a 60. But everyone did badly.
(Long pause as parent simply stares through the child.)
Student (with cautionary optimism): She gave us an extra credit assignment to pull up our grade.
Parent: Get it out and start working on it.

What's wrong with this conversation?
I applaud the teacher for recognizing that the entire class struggled on the test (assuming the student didn’t make it up). But instead of assigning an extra credit assignment to raise students’ grades, the teacher should be reflecting on her own professional practices to ensure improved achievement. This should include re-teaching and re-assessment.

While some extra credit assignments do equate to increased learning or mastery of the objective, most extra credit assignments dilute the meaning of grades. For example, in this case, it sounds as if the student simply needs to complete additional work to raise her grade; meaning the quantity of work becomes more important than the quality of the understanding.

If, as the student stated, most students did poorly, it’s not a learning problem. It’s a teaching problem that requires corrective action.

Four Standards-Based Grading Principles Relevant to These Conversations
  1. Grades should focus on results rather than activities. Emphasis should be on learning and not competition and completion.
  2. Assessments provide information for students AND teacher.
  3. If a particular concept or skill is worth assessing then it’s important enough to teach and teach well.
  4. Teachers should follow assessments with high-quality corrective actions and students should be given additional opportunities to demonstrate mastery.