Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Now on The Edurati Review!

Just a note for readers: some posts from this blog will now be published simultaneously on The Edurati Review, a blog with several contributors. You can read my introduction and first post and follow the interesting discussions at this great resource.

All my blog postings will continue to be published here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Learning: Three Basics to Improve Teaching

“Well, I don’t really know much about how a car runs,” the mechanic explains, “but I do have a garage full of tools that I know how to use. One of them will probably do the trick.”

Would you trust your car to this repairperson? What if you were given a similar explanation by a plumber? a pharmacist? a surgeon?

We expect experts to have more than a collection of tools; we expect them to have an understanding of what they need to accomplish so they can tailor their actions accordingly. An air pump, while a useful tool for certain tasks, will do little good if used to address an oil leak.

Similarly, teachers need more than a collection of teaching methods. They need to understand learning. Knowing how people learn increases a teacher’s intentionality, the capacity to design instruction that fits both the material and the learners.

What, then, are some basics of learning that every school leader and teacher should know? Here are three starter principles:

Memorization ≠ Learning: It amazes me how many times teachers argue that memorization equals learning and offer the times table as proof. Let’s imagine that a child memorizes the times table but never understands the concept of multiplication (same-sized groups being combined and the total items tabulated) nor the pattern that calls for multiplication as a solution (same-sized groups needing to be combined to determine a total). Of what value, beyond the teacher’s timed tests, will having memorized the times table be? The student will not understand what he is doing when answering multiplication questions from memory, nor will he be able to ever use multiplication to solve word or real-world problems. Yes, some elements need to be memorized, but equating memorization with authentic learning is a mistake, because…

The brain constructs learning. “We often talk of knowledge as though it could be divorced from thinking, as though it could be gathered up by one person and given to another in the form of a collection of sentences to remember,” explains Richard Paul. “When we talk in this way we forget that knowledge, by its very nature, depends on thought. Knowledge is produced by thought, analyzed by thought, comprehended by thought, organized, evaluated, maintained, and transformed by thought. Knowledge exists, properly speaking, only in minds that have comprehended it and constructed it through thought.” To learn, the brain labels and sorts incoming data, seeks patterns within it, and recalls prior experiences related to it. The new data and the prior experiences are then blended to construct understanding. Unless we engage students in thinking about new material, they will not learn. And they will lack the ability to use new knowledge because…

Authentic learning empowers transfer. Students transfer learning when they use it outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, transfer rarely occurs. According to Eric Jensen, the “abysmal failure of students to transfer learning from school subjects to real life…cuts across age, IQ, and social status.” What contributes to a student’s ability to use knowledge in widened or varied contexts? “The first factor that influences successful transfer is degree of mastery of the original subject,” conclude Bransford, Brown, and Cocking. “Without an adequate level of initial learning, transfer cannot be expected. This point seems obvious, but it is often overlooked…Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures."

Understanding learning involves more than comprehending these three principles, and neurocognitive researchers are uncovering new insights almost every day. However, even basic knowledge of learning influences instructional decisions. Teachers who grow in their understanding of learning develop more than a cache of instructional methods. They increase in intentionality. They are able to design instruction that fosters authentic learning. They know why they do what they do, and they know why what they do achieves the goal: student learning.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.), How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press, 1999), 41, 43.
Jensen, E., Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Every Learner’s Potential (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 20.
Paul, R., “The State of Critical Thinking Today: The Need for a Substantive Concept of Critical Thinking,” retrieved December 2006 from

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Comeback of Concepts

Recent research suggests that concepts are making a rightful comeback in classrooms. According to a Vanderbilt University study, students who learn the concepts underlying mathematical procedures develop better problem-solving skills and increased flexibility in thinking. Students with conceptual understanding can approach a problem in multiple ways to achieve successful outcomes.

These “new” research findings are not news to educators who understand how the brain learns. The brain seeks and sees patterns. Patterns, or concepts, aid both memory storage and retrieval. Patterns empower authentic learning.

Patterns enable the brain to construct understanding. As it encounters new experience, the brain begins to label and sort data. Through this organizing, patterns emerge and trigger recall of relevant past experiences. The past experiences provide a reference point and working memory systems blend the new data and the reference point to construct new understanding.

Patterns enable the transfer of learning. Pattern recognition prompts recall of understood concepts or relevant skills that enable a response to current circumstances. As we encounter real-world scenarios, our brains seek out patterns. Once recognized, those patterns aid our recall of related processes (e.g., mathematical procedures) that may be used in problem-solving. This flexibility in thinking required for transferring learning develops as students understand underlying patterns and how to recognize them within varied scenarios.

Patterns empower critical thinking. Just as a skill (mathematical or otherwise) can be applied when a student recognizes patterns within a scenario, so thinking can be engaged when conceptual patterns are recognized. Consider learning about a major historical event, such as World War II, but instead of just memorizing names and dates, you explored underlying patterns: World War II as an illustration of the results of combining power and prejudice. Now you have a pattern, a reference, something you can recall when you hear about “ethnic cleansing” in the news. What’s come together to allow such atrocities? What happens if these atrocities are not stopped? Your pattern-based understanding of World War II suddenly gives history of the last century importance; it provides a reference point for thinking about, and possibly addressing, current circumstances.

So, let’s cheer this renewed emphasis on concepts—not at the expense of basic knowledge, but as the organizing principles that give basic knowledge its value. However, more than this, let’s learn what we can about the brain and apply what we learn to our teaching. That way we become intentional practitioners—teachers who know why they do what they do and why what they do works.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Writing Well Matters

In his outstanding book, Writing Well, Mark Tredinnick (2008) offers the following insight:
“In these times, more than ever, we need a little depth and care, generosity and poise. We need a little perspective and honesty and restraint. And politically, a little low-voltage rage. We need, in other words, to rediscover the syntax of civility and the diction of democracy” (p. 230).

The “diction of democracy,” claims Tredinnick, is found in “the struggle to improve our sentences.” By equipping and empowering students as writers, we provide them with a critical tool for participation in democratic society. Being able to communicate well empowers expression. If a student believes his thoughts and opinions matter AND he possesses the means to communicate those thoughts and opinions, he is more likely to become a PARTICIPANT in democracy—someone with the means to change his standing rather than view himself as a victim of forces over which he has no control.

The benefits of learning to write also equip students for in-school success. Writing is a means of learning. Experts refer to this aspect of writing as “knowledge transforming”—“constructing ideas and images through writing” (Fearn & Farnan, 2001). In writing, “information promotes curiosity or speculation, and the writer uses the information and the curiosity to construct knowledge not originally accumulated” (p. 183-184).

Writing also develops important cognitive functions such as working memory. “Few activities are as cognitively demanding as writing” (Dingfelder, 2006). In fact, different writing phases engage different elements of working memory. While drafting obviously engages verbal working memory, planning a piece of writing actually engages spatial working memory. Writers “represent their ideas visually when trying to structure their essays,” notes neuropsychologist David Galbraith (Dingfelder, 2006). Spatial working memory empowers planning, verbal working memory empowers drafting, and both empower revision as writers evaluate and improve both idea-level structure and word-level details. Improving working memory abilities influences fluid intelligence, capacities “critical for wide variety of cognitive tasks” and “considered one of the most important factors in learning” (Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, & Perrig, 2008). Teaching students to write may not only give them a means of constructing understanding, but may actually equip them for better or more efficient learning in multiple areas. Writing engages “more areas of the brain and involves them more intensely than any activity thus far investigated” (Houston, 2004, p. 8).

Despite these immediate and long-range benefits, our schools fail to produce writers. A recent study found that 70% of students in Grades 4–12 are considered low-achieving writers. Seventy percent! Researchers describe our current writing instruction as being stuck in the eighteenth century with little real relationship to actual writing. In other words, we are teaching something other than writing while we claim to be teaching writing. We must reclaim writing instruction and give it the time and energy it needs.

How should it be taught? The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement offers insights in its report “Writing Next,” and the Writer’s Stylus professional development and instructional program offers an “optimal mix” of effective methods.

If 70% of our students lack the “diction of democracy,” their influence could be limited. Let’s change the world through "
depth and care, generosity and poise," "perspective and honesty and restraint," and "a little low-voltage rage." Let’s develop writers!

Dingfelder, S. (2006). Writing exercises all aspects of working memory. Monitor on Psychology 37 (7). 19.

Fearn, L. & Farnan, N. (2001). Interactions: Teaching writing and the language arts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Houston, G. (2004). How writing works: Imposing organizational structure within the writing process. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W. J. (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 18, 2008.

Tredinnick, M. (2008). Writing well: The essential guide. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Here's to Teachers or How to Improve Education

“What we’re striving for,” the textbook publisher explained, “are materials that are teacher-proof.” My face revealed my incomprehension. “You know, materials that can be picked up by anyone, and as long as they do exactly what the teacher’s guide says, they will have taught a lesson.”

“You mean, like a script?” I asked.

“That’s not a term we like to use,” he replied, “but that is the idea.”

I don’t remember my reply, but I do remember feeling nauseated by what he described. I went to college and graduate school so I could have someone in an office somewhere write a script for how I should teach? I removed my self from the project a few days later. My philosophy conflicted with the publisher’s desired results.

Take a moment to recall a period of significant learning in your past. Perhaps it was early in your education, throughout second grade, for example. Perhaps your memories as a ten-year-old are full of learning. Or perhaps middle school enriched your mind unlike anything prior. Or maybe it was high school or even college before you felt like a true learner. Got the experience in mind? Now, what was the title and who was the author of the textbooks you read during that time? Hmm, can’t recall? How about the teacher? I bet you do remember the teacher!

Research confirms that the teacher in the classroom is the single most significant school-based factor influencing student learning and achievement. A mere two-year span of great teaching vs. ineffective teaching can produce achievement test percentile ranking differences as high as 90% (Marzano, 2003). Think about that! Two years with great teachers and a student can soar; two years with ineffective teachers and a student can sink.

Dr. Ken Robinson (2009) recognizes the value of teachers in his latest book:
My own extremely strong belief, based on decades of work in the field, is that the best way to improve education is not to focus primarily on the curriculum, nor on assessment, important those these things are. The most powerful method of improving education is to invest in the improvement of teaching and the status of great teachers. There isn’t a great school anywhere that doesn’t have great teachers working in it (p. 238).

When we began Clerestory Learning, we committed to investing in education’s most valuable asset: its teachers. That’s why we include graduate-level quality professional development components for all our programs. (In fact, graduate credit is offered for all our programs!) It may not be the most profitable approach, and our programs cannot be described as “teacher-proof,” but research and our experience confirm that you improve education by further equipping one teacher at a time.

So here’s to the true teachers. The Miss McHugh’s (4th grade), Mrs. Hennessey’s (6th grade), Mr. Webber’s (high school), Dr. Post’s (college), and Dr. Carwile’s (graduate school) of the world. Teachers who invested in learners rather than sticking to a script. May we be as brave and effective!

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA; ASCD.
Robinson, K. (2009).
The element: How finding your passion changes everything. New York: Viking.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Teaching Writing with an "Optimal Mix"

Consider the following:
  • 70% of 4th-12th grade students are considered low-achieving writers
  • college professors estimate that 50% of college freshmen are unprepared for college-level writing
  • nearly 40% of college students and high school graduates in the workforce view their own writing as not meeting expectations of quality
The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement cited these in a research brief entitled “Writing Next.” The brief overviews a meta-analysis of research on effective writing instruction.

The report advocates the following instructional methods:

  1. writing strategies: explicitly teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing—processes that significantly influence writing quality
  2. summarizing: teaching students to effectively summarize material
  3. collaboration: engaging students in student to peer and student to teacher interaction focused on improving writing quality
  4. specific tasks: engaging students in specific but varied writing tasks that have a well-defined outcome
  5. construction instruction: explicitly teaching students how to form effective sentences, including more complex and sophisticated ones
  6. prewriting: aiding students in generating and structuring ideas before the first draft is attempted
  7. inquiry: engaging students in prewriting research to develop ideas, identify questions, and secure reliable information sources
  8. process writing: recognizing and engaging students in all the phases of writing with special emphasis given to those that significantly increase quality (prewriting and revising)
  9. models: engaging students in analysis of excellent writing models for the genres in which they also will be writing
  10. writing to learn: engaging students in writing throughout all disciplines
An "optimal mix" of these methods improves student writing. This is the emphasis of the Writer’s Stylus instructional program. Find information on this “revolutionary” program and its upcoming professional development events here.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Practical Skills & Application

The Architecture of Learning Instructional Design Model recognizes four cognitively-distinct processes: experience, comprehension, elaboration, application. These four represent learning’s core processes—processes that optimize each other’s contribution to learning. (A fifth process, intention, involves responding to current, “real-world” circumstances with previously learned content and/or skills.)

In Teaching for Wisdom, Intelligence, Creativity, and Success, Sternberg, Jarvin, and Grigorenko (2009) identify “four types of different thinking skills: memory, analytical skills, creative skills, and practical skills” (p. 19). Comparison between these thinking types and the core processes of the Architecture of Learning provide valuable insights.

“Practical skills” comprise knowledge students need “in living their own life” (p. 47). Practical skills can be applied to “real world situations” (p. 47). Verb phrases associated with practical skills include apply, connect to real life, identify examples, translate, show its benefit in different contexts, predict, design, problem-solve, implement, and advise.

Application, as defined in Architecture of Learning, is practice within the instructional setting that enables the use of understandings or skills within a widened or new (i.e., outside the instructional) setting. It provides the practice that constructs proficiency. Many of the verbs associated with Sternberg, Jarvin, and Grigorenko’s “practical skills” relate to activities that engage students in Architecture of Learning’s application.

This connection between practical skills and application is similar to those of memory and experience, analytical skills and comprehension, and creative skills and elaboration. These remarkable parallels reinforce beneficial insights.

First, authentic learning results from the combination and interplay of multiple ways of thinking. By authentic learning, I mean learning that results in understandings that can be recalled and applied to thinking or action within real-world scenarios. This depth of learning is rarely measured by achievement tests, so I’m not suggesting such learning will raise test scores. However, the sequence of both models suggests that mere experience or mere memorization is insufficient for quality learning. Both models engage students in thinking through and using new knowledge to construct full, authentic learning.

Second, great teaching is rarely spontaneous. Yes, it happens from time to time, and there are gifted teachers who know how to engage students effectively, but successful teaching usually requires planning. An instructional design model, such as Architecture of Learning, that requires a focus on learning’s core processes can guide teachers as they develop instruction. Such planning creates the conditions for optimal learning.

We need to revolutionize the way we teach many school subjects. A recent study found that 60% of college students show symptoms of anxiety as they approach mathematics. If they understood mathematical concepts to the point where they could use the concepts in thinking about and addressing real-world scenarios, the anxiety could be replaced with confidence. Attention to teaching that fosters authentic learning holds the key to such transformation.

Sternberg, R. J, Jarvin, L. & Grigorenko, E. L. (2009). Teaching for wisdom, intelligence,creativity, and success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.