Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Teach the Tension

Two recent topics of discussion around my house have been the presidential election (obviously) and the challenges of teaching critical thinking (just as obviously, if you know my family). You will perhaps not be shocked to learn that I think the two topics are related.

There used to be a saying in politics that if you tried to fly a plane with only one wing, all you’d do is go in circles. And yet, we no longer seem to value having a left wing and a right wing in our country, to balance our flight and help us move forward. Discourse and compromise are seen as weakness at best, capitulation at worst. Only one side can be right. And it has to be 100% right, 100% of the time.

Part of this is just power politics. But part of it has to do with a dualistic view of the world. There are two (and only two) sides to every issue, and if one of those sides is Good, the other must be Evil. If you’re on the side of Good, why would you want to compromise with Evil? You wouldn’t.  And since no one thinks their own opinion or viewpoint is evil, everyone feels justified in building walls and fighting against what they see as the Army of Darkness. It is a medieval, even Manichaean, way of thinking, and it makes democracy, from town halls up to the halls of Congress, very challenging.

Our education system can fall victim to the same kind of thinking, in its own way. Within any subject, there are Basic Facts that have to be learned. They are true, and correct, which is why they’ve been written down in textbooks for students to learn. Some things are simply correct, and some things are simply incorrect. Students need to learn the difference between the two. That’s why we have tests. We grow up seeing each school day as a series of right and wrong answers, and it’s hard not to impose that view on the rest of the world. Even in English classes, where literature is supposed to be open to interpretation, students quickly learn that there are right interpretations (the textbook and the teacher’s) and wrong interpretations (theirs).

There are neurological reasons why we think this way—and end up teaching this way--and reasons why it’s difficult to stop thinking this way. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, does a great job of explaining how our lazy brains fight against critical, analytical thinking whenever possible, replacing genuine thought with reflexive reaction. It’s not that we’re incapable of reason; it’s just that it’s hard work that our brains would rather not do. When faced with an array of political policy ideas from two or more candidates, our brains will defer to simpler, more visceral decision-making options, like a candidate’s party, or height, or hair, or smile, or the strength of his or her chin. If those characteristics have correlated (even somewhat) with strong leadership skills over the years, our brains will substitute the knee-jerk reaction to the hard work of reasoning. We “know” that one candidate is better than another, but how do we know that we know? What makes us so sure we’re right, and the other side is wrong?

It’s easy to say things like, “Question everything,” in response to the knee-jerk reaction, but how can we teach ourselves—and our children—how to question things effectively, in order to challenge our confirmation bias and think more critically about the issues in front of us?

I believe the first step is to remind ourselves that in most cases, the two sides of an issue are not separate from each other, at war with each other, and utterly irreconcilable. In fact, in most cases, the two sides of an issue live in dynamic tension with each other in a constant push-pull on our affections and desires. We believe strongly in equality, but we know that mandated, enforced equality, whether in school or in political systems, can kill initiative and creativity, and create a world of drab sameness. We believe strongly in freedom, but we know that unregulated, unrestricted freedom can lead to chaos and a world where physical or economic might makes right. Equality and freedom are both important aspects of American political thought and life. Their demands push and pull at us all the time. Sometimes we move more in the direction of equality at the expense of freedom; sometimes we do the opposite. We are always in search of the best middle-ground. The middle-ground isn’t capitulation to an enemy; it’s the attainment of balance.

You could have the same discussion about freedom versus security—whether it’s my freedom of speech versus your right to be safe from insult and offense, or my freedom to carry a gun versus your right to live without being afraid of me. Which is more important—freedom or security? It’s a false question; they’re both important. The question is how we balance our rights and needs.

What I’m saying is that, instead of spending all of our time teaching discrete things—things which, in themselves, are simply right or wrong—we should make sure kids have time to explore the tensions among things—because critical thinking is all about assessing how things interact, play off each other, and affect us. And when you understand that you are eternally caught in a tug-of-war between competing needs, you will stop seeing one side as God’s and other side as Satan’s—or, in school—one side as The Right Answer and one side as The Wrong Answer.

It’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve tried. When students are used to reading history textbooks, it’s very challenging to bring competing first-person accounts of an event to them. They don’t find the diversity of perspective and agenda fascinating; they find it annoying. They don’t relish the idea of evaluating resources, synthesizing arguments, and reaching their own conclusions. They slam their books shut, glare up and me, and say, “So, which is it? Which one is right?” Remember: we have lazy brains.
Reason is an amazing gift, but it’s not a gift we like to use. We think we like it—we fool ourselves into believing that we’re rational, reasoning creatures. But we’re not. Not if we can avoid it. If Position A is published in a glossy-looking, professional published book, and Position B is published as a third-generation photocopy, we will want to believe Position A.  If Position A is presented first, we will want to believe Position A—or, at the very least, our deference to it will color the way we read and think about Position B.

How do you know what you know? What makes you so sure what you know is true? What makes you so sure that what you don’t believe in is not true? What if you’re wrong?

Our history of thought goes back to Socrates, who badgered and annoyed people with questions that came at them from every angle, undermining every conclusion and assumption they had, so that people had to stop assuming and start reasoning. Who can provide that annoying but necessary service for us today, if not our teachers?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Show Your Work

When I was in high school, there was nothing I hated more than math. And in math class, there was nothing I hated more than showing my work. It felt like a tedious chore with for no real purpose—a hoop somebody wanted me to jump through. Math was not open to poetic interpretation; the answer was either right or wrong. And no one ever offered me partial credit for getting an answer partially correct, or for demonstrating an interesting, if flawed, process. As far as I could tell, nobody even looked at my work. So why did I have to show it?

Today, if my high-school aged son is to be believed, the situation doesn’t seem much improved. And that’s a shame. The Common Core State Standards in mathematics--and the new math standards in many non-CCSS states—make clear that reasoning, arguing, and critiquing are vital skills within mathematics, and that teachers should be instilling in students a devotion to precision and perseverance. None of those mathematical habits of mind reveal themselves in the calculation sitting to the right of an equal sign and a question mark. They reveal themselves in the process—in the work a student does along the way to an answer. There are real and strong reasons to show your work. But if a teacher doesn’t understand those reasons and make use of them, the practice can easily remain an exercise in hoop-jumping.

As Elizabeth Green explains in her excellent book, Building a Better Teacher, the right answer is often the least interesting piece of data available in a classroom. It is the wrong answers that give teachers real information about how students are thinking and where they may be going astray. And while a seasoned veteran may be able to intuit a problem from nothing more than a final answer, most of us will have an easier time understanding what’s going on by making the student’s thought process visible. In written assignments, that’s precisely where have students show their work is important.  

What about in the heat of a class discussion? Students can show their work here, as well, by talking about their process. Asking “what did you do?” is far more valuable (and interesting) than asking “what did you get?”  It allows the class to explore multiple problem-solving strategies and assess what works and what doesn’t. It helps students become comfortable and fluent in “talking math.” And it can make error an interesting topic of conversation rather than something to be embarrassed about and try to hide from.

There’s a lot of talk about Growth Mindset in the education world. Well, a vital component of Growth Mindset is the willingness to fail, and try, and fail again—the understanding that failure is a natural part of the process of learning, a necessary step on the way to success. Athletes understand this perfectly well. A baseball player with a batting average of .300 is considered pretty good; a player who bats .400 is considered outstanding. Outstanding—with a 40% success rate! In basketball, perhaps the greatest player of my lifetime, Michael Jordan, said this:  “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” He doesn’t say that he succeeded in spite of his failures; he says he succeeded because of them. Because he was willing to put himself out there, and make a mistake, and learn from the mistake, and press on.

We need to find ways to model this more positive view of failure for our students. Instead of focusing solely on end-results, we need to show students the long road it took to reach that goal. How many drafts did it take for an author to reach the final manuscript? How many publishers rejected the book before it was accepted? How many experiments did the inventor go through before hitting on the right combination of ingredients? What challenges and setbacks did a historical figure endure before doing the great work for which they are remembered?

And what about us? Are we willing to model failure personally in front of our students? Can we admit to them when we’re wrong, or when we don’t know the answer, or when an activity we planned didn’t go as well as we had hoped? Can we show them that there’s no shame in falling down, as long as we get back up again, brush the dust off ourselves, and push on?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Cultivating Student Curiosity

I performed a magic trick at a recent workshop. I was working with a set of elementary-school teachers in Indianapolis: two workshops per day, over two days. With each of the four groups, I asked the teachers to show me what their students would draw if they were asked to picture a house, with a family and tree out front and the sun up in the sky. When they were finished, I said, “Now here’s my magic trick. I haven’t been anywhere near my computer while you’ve been drawing, but now I will reveal the picture that every one of you drew.” And I showed them this picture:

Sure enough, it was exactly what every one of them had drawn. And they were right—it’s exactly what all of their students would have drawn.


Un-boxing the Student Brain

Think about it for a moment. Why is every house a square with a triangle on top? Is that really an approximation of what their houses look like? And why are they all the same, when every house on the block looks a little different? Where are the two-story houses, the split-level houses, the apartment buildings? And why do the mothers all have long hair and the triangle that symbolizes dresses or skirts? Is that really what their mothers look like today? Who told them that a triangle symbolized Woman? Why does the tree look like a lollipop? Why is the sun a yellow circle with straight lines coming out of it—and, often, a smiley face?

The teachers offered up a wide range of interesting answers, including the following:

  • It’s what they’ve seen in books and magazines over the years
  • It’s what they’ve seen their peers do over the years
  • When they see their peers doing it, they change their picture to match what looks “right”
  • They get corrected by their teachers, who unwittingly get kids to conform to what looks “right”
  • They get preemptive instruction from teachers, who suggest using simple shapes (squares, triangles, circles) to keep kids from becoming frustrated

When any of these things happen—and especially when they all happen in the classroom—the result will be conformity—and, in this case, conformity to something that doesn’t even resemble reality. A student who enjoys science and knows what the sun really looks like will be encouraged (on purpose or unwittingly) to stop trying to draw a reddish-orange ball of burning gas and will draw a yellow, smiley circle. A child whose mother has short hair and wears jeans will draw a mother who looks nothing like her actual mother. Little by little, they will learn to substitute an approved, common vision for their own, singular vision. And then, suddenly, sometime in middle school, we’ll start asking what happened to their creativity.

According to research by the Right Question Institute, as children become verbal, the number of questions they ask in school each day shoots through the roof, but then begins a slow decline starting at around age three. By age 18, they are hardly asking any questions at all. Now, one could argue (as their research shows) that because this decline happens at about the same rate as their reading and writing skills develop, they have a decreasing need to ask questions in school, because there are finding their own answers.  But anyone who has ever taught middle or high school would snort with amused disbelief at that argument. In fact, far too many of our students become increasingly un-curious as they make their way through school. They learn not to ask questions, because they learn that their questions are not considered important. The adults mandate what will be studied, and the adults decide what questions matter. The job of students is to answer questions, not ask them. The job of students is to be compliant and responsive and well-behaved. There is no room for curiosity in the lesson plan.

In recent years, however, room has been made for curiosity in our learning standards. The Common Core State Standards, as well as other new state standards, ask students to form and write personal opinions (through grade 5) and evidence-based arguments (starting in grade 6) about a wide variety of texts. Informational writing is still important, but far less important than developing the skill of argument. You can’t make an argument if you don’t take a position—and you can’t make an interesting argument if you aren’t curious enough about what you’re studying to develop a point of view. The standards of mathematical practice likewise talk about the importance of argument. The first standard asks students (at all ages) to “reason abstractly and quantitatively,” and the second standard asks students to “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”

If that’s what we expect students to do, how can we make sure that we’re not inadvertently steering them away from those goals as they grow up with us?

Changing What We Ask For

An easy first step is to change the way we phrase our learning expectations. Every teacher learns, as part of her training, that lesson objectives must be clear, concrete, and measurable. And most of us learned to write our objectives using SWBAT language: “Students will be able to…” followed by that clear, concrete, measurable goal. For example:

Students will be able to support a topic sentence with evidence.

There’s nothing wrong with that objective…except that it tells students what they will do, rather than inviting or challenging them to do something. And that’s not an insignificant difference. If we want students to be curious, not just compliant, than we need to give them something to be curious about.  Imagine if we phrased that learning objective as a question instead of a command:

How can you convince readers that your argument is valid?

Think about how differently those two sentences register and resonate in your head, when you hear them. The statement is impersonal and commanding, where the question is personal and inviting. The question connects the academic content to the student’s own world. The question challenges them and poses them a problem to be solved. The statement simply tells them to do stuff.
Now imagine what you could do if that lesson objective was part of a larger unit—maybe even an interdisciplinary unit—that looked at all the different ways we have of figuring things out, as humans. What if we used a question to frame the entire unit—something like this?

How can we know what’s true?

You can still keep the SWBAT language in your lesson planner, to remind you what the concrete goals are. But why not invite the students to be curious and interested in what you’re teaching? After all, what you’re teaching is interesting and important!  If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t keep teaching it, generation after generation. Let’s try to remind ourselves—and show our students—why the stuff of school actually matters. And who knows? Maybe they’ll ask a question that no one has ever asked before—or find a solution to a problem that no one has been able to solve before. 

NAEP Results: Less “Bang for Our Buck” (But Plenty of Whimpers)

“Between the idea and the reality . . . falls the shadow.”      —T.S. Eliot

A new report from our friends at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” provides data on student performance in reading and mathematics across multiple grade levels across the country. This latest report shows us how well American twelfth graders performed in 2015 as compared with the last test administration in 2013.

Those were two years of contentious Common Core adoption in many states, or resistance to Common Core and reliance on existing standards in other states—two years of hard work at educational reform and improvement, wherever you lived, whether you were changing course or staying the course; two years of teaching, reaching, explaining, begging, and maybe even bribing students to achieve.

So, what’s the result of our efforts over the past two years? Well, according to NAEP:

In comparison to 2013, the national average mathematics score in 2015 for twelfth-grade students was lower and the average reading score was not significantly different.
In comparison to the first year of the current trendline, 2005, the average mathematics score in 2015 did not significantly differ. In comparison to the initial reading assessment year, 1992, the 2015 average reading score was lower.

Not what we wanted to hear, is it? Either nothing changed, or things got a little worse – hence the quote at the top of the page. Between our aspirations and our actuality, there always seems to be a little shadow—a little gap—a little, “Sorry, not quite.”

Why? What went wrong? Or, more accurately, what’s going wrong, day after day, week after week? Why is that shadow falling between what we’re trying to do and what we’re getting?


Part of the performance gap comes from an implementation gap—the shadow that falls between our plans and the way we put those plans into effect. New standards or textbooks or pieces of whiz-bang software may be brilliant and revolutionary in theory, but if they’re rolled out to schools ineffectively, or haphazardly, or without real buy-in and understanding from teachers. Eventually they wind up on the trash heap and reinforce our feeling that nothing ever works.

Were all of those abandoned programs and initiatives really terrible? Probably not. In fact, most of them were probably fine—maybe even better than fine…in theory. We just didn’t use them properly, or hold onto them long enough to see a result. Anything new requires a little patience, a little persistence. You would never buy a packet of apple seeds on Monday, plant them on Tuesday, and expect a glorious, fruit-laden tree by Friday. But that’s pretty much what we do in our schools, year after year. If the new thing doesn’t work in its first year of implementation, we give up on it and go back to whatever it was we were doing before. Our “flavor of the month” approach to reforms and resources may be one of our problems.

Another problem is that we aim for real thought from our students, but too often settle for mere response. If we’re not aware of that gap, it can cast a lethal shadow over all of our “college and career readiness” initiatives. Here are a few recent examples I came across in my travels:


I visited with a high school teacher several weeks ago—a bright and capable young man who teaches Japanese in an excellent private school. He has been successfully teaching Japanese for a number of years already; his kids get good grades and their parents have been happy. He usually teaches in a fairly traditional style—a lot of lecture, a lot of worksheets, a lot of rote memorization. Pretty standard stuff.

But after a PD session at his school, he decided, as an experiment, to change how he assessed vocabulary. Instead of giving his students a traditional quiz on the words they had been given to learn (here’s the word; choose the correct definition from among four choices), he asked his students to use each word in a couple of sentences. The result was disastrous. They could identify the meaning of the words, but they couldn’t use them. They couldn’t do anything with what they knew.


In an elementary classroom at another school, I saw a teacher leading an activity in which students generated lists of nouns, adjectives, and verbs, which the teacher placed up on a large, color-coded chart. The students were asked to create sentences by choosing a couple of the nouns, one of the adjectives, and one of the verbs. When I arrived in the classroom, the students were almost done; most of them were drawing pictures to illustrate their sentences. All the kids looked happy and successful.

But when I leaned over and asked one of the girls which word was the verb, she had no idea…even though it was colored blue on her paper, just as it was colored blue on the chart, under the title, “Verbs.” When I asked her what a verb did a sentence, she didn’t know. When I told her what a verb did in a sentence and then asked her which word in her sentence was doing that, she didn’t know. And she wasn’t the only one who was having this problem. For many of the students, the sentences looked fine. Their sentences were, in fact, correct. They were able to respond successfully to the instructions and complete the activity to the teacher’s satisfaction. But they couldn’t talk about what they were doing, and they seemed not to understand what it is they had done.


When I came home from my most recent travels, I saw my sixth grader hard at work on a science assignment. I asked him what he was doing, and he showed me a worksheet about the carbon cycle. The question he had just completed read, “How does deforestation affect the carbon cycle?” His answer was, “Trees are carbon sinks.” He was very happy with his answer, because it was factually correct. He could even show me, in his textbook, where that factual detail lived. But his answer, while true, didn’t respond to the question he had been asked. It took several minutes of (gentle) browbeating and asking “so what?” to get him to connect his fact to the idea of deforestation. He had a lot of facts ready at hand—in his brain and in his notes—but he wasn’t sure what to do with them.
It’s an easy miss on a homework assignment, but it’s exactly the kind of thing we need our teachers to tease out with students. Are our teachers taking the time to help students connect thought to thought, and idea to action, in a way that helps them make the things they’re learning useful?


Every test is a transfer task—you have to take what you learned in the classroom and apply it somewhere else. But no test prep can prepare you for every question or question type you may encounter in the world. You have to be able to come at any challenge with a deep understanding of the relevant content and an ability to be flexible in the way you use it. You have to be ready to improvise at a moment’s notice. You have to be able to think about what you know.
This is why athletes need more than drills. They need scrimmages—practice games—to get the experience of making decisions and using their skills in the crazy, unpredictable, changeable context of a game.

The question for us is: are we deficient in our skills drills, or in our scrimmages?

I don’t believe that a stagnation or slight downturn in NAEP scores means that our teaching is deteriorating, or that a particular class of students isn’t as bright as the class that came before it. We’ve been at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy—teaching, questioning, and testing at the levels of basic knowledge—and we’re still pretty good at that level. But we’re less effective at getting kids to think about what we’re teaching them so that they can use what they learn confidently and in a variety of new ways.

The more our assessments move away from basic question-and-response—the more they try to present students with authentic thinking and reasoning tasks, the more we are liable to see a shadow fall between what we’ve taught them and what they can do with what they know.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The View from SXSW: Finding Innovation, Optimism, and Passion in Education

“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
Annie Dillard

The South by Southwest Education conference just wrapped up, and I thought I’d take a moment to share some notes and thoughts for anyone who might be interested. Before registering, I hadn’t even been aware that SXSW had an education conference. What did I know?

Education conferences are usually hit-or-miss affairs: some sessions are interesting; some are dull and ordinary. Some addresses bring new information and insight; some rehash things you’ve heard a million times before. This one was no different, although the things that hit, hit hard and rang out loud and clear.
A theme that resonated throughout the event was personalization. It started with Temple Grandin discussing the Autism spectrum and the importance of honoring different minds and the different ways in which those minds see and work in the world. The theme was picked up later in the week by futurist and game designer, Jane McGonigal, who challenged us to see signals of possible futures all around us—and then grab the signals we like and build a new world. She imagined for us a world in which every act of learning we participated in, whether as children or adults, in school or out, earned credits like Bitcoins and contributed to a dynamic, endlessly expanding transcript and résumé viewable by employers and colleagues all around the world. We heard from an author challenging the entire idea of “average” as a way of measuring or describing people—people being far too jagged and variable to be able to be contained or defined by a single value. We saw how the distribution of scores along a traditional bell curve disappeared when students were allowed to work at their own pace and take assessments when they were ready for them, instead of when a teacher assigned them.

Some speakers acknowledged that a measure of standardization and structure still had value and importance to us; some didn’t. All of them wondered: can we de-standardize and de-institutionalize the way we teach and learn, while still holding to some set of goals and standards for knowledge and performance?  If we personalize everything, do we lose all sense of common knowledge, core understandings, shared culture?  Can we still be an “us” if we allow every individual, “I” to design their own pathway and ecosystem of learning?

Obviously, the conference raised more questions than answers—as it should have. But the one answer I did find was that there is an abundance of passion in American education, and an abundance of innovation.  That much was obvious—and it was refreshing and invigorating to see. You know how it is: the day-to-day dramas and traumas of teaching and leading in schools can wear you down and rob you of hope; from the ground-level, it can look as though change is hopeless. But it’s important to remember that ground-level is not the only perspective—and, in this case, it’s not the most useful one.

One of the last sessions I attended was about a group of poor and disadvantaged students from Washington, DC, who had participated, 25 years ago, in an intensive program to help them succeed in school and get into college. Film clips of the students, then and now, were shown (part of a new documentary, called Southeast 67). Some of the students had gone on to college right after high school; many had not. The teacher who ran the program, who now leads efforts on college access at the College Board, told us that at the time, he and his colleagues were saddened by what they perceived to be their failure. All of the support and services they had provided were meant to get those kids into college, and it hadn’t worked. And yet, now, years later, they could see that many of the kids had made it to college—eventually. Some were still in school today. And even if they hadn’t gone to college, all of them had made it, firmly and successfully, into the middle class. Most of them had happy families and children. And all of the children—all of the children—had gone to and graduated from four-year colleges. Many had gone on to graduate school. The investment these adults had made in a group of children had not only changed their lives for the better; it had changed the history and the trajectory of their families. And that wasn’t due to some high-tech innovation or radical restructuring of the school. It was because they had decided, as the president of Franklin and Marshall College put it, that their job was to know those students, love those students, believe in them, invest in them, and never let them go.

Every once in a while it’s really important to be in the room when a story like that gets told. It makes a difference when you can feel the passion and the resolution of the people sharing their story. It makes a difference when you can feel the hope and optimism beaming out into the room. It’s a physical sensation, humming through you the way live music does. They play their music, and the air carries it into your bones—a sympathetic vibration. They ring the bell inside their souls, and the sound waves reach out and ring yours.

Every once in a while it’s nice to be reminded that you, too, are a bell, just waiting to be struck.