Friday, July 19, 2013

Flippable Topics for AP Psychology

Flipping the Psychology Classroom: Strategies for Active Learning
Amy C. Fineburg, PhD – APAC 2013

These topics are good to use to assign for students to read their textbook or watch instructional videos on their own. 

Flippable Topics for AP Psychology:

History & Approaches
            Early schools of thought in psychology
            Famous early psychologists

Research Methods
            Operational definitions
            The normal curve

Biological Bases of Behavior
            Action potentials
            Structure of the nervous system
            Structures in the brain        

Sensation & Perception
            Signal detection theory
            Anatomy of the sense organs
            Gestalt principles
            Monocular depth cues

States of Consciousness
            Theories of hypnosis
            REM sleep
            Theories of dreams
            The psychology of addiction
            Neurotransmitters and drugs

            Basic principles of classical conditioning
            Basic principles of operant conditioning

            Heuristics and algorithms
            Basics of language

Motivation & Emotion
            Theories of motivation
            Hormones of eating
            Theories of emotion
            General adaptation syndrome

Developmental Psychology
            Milestone of development
            Assimilation and accommodation
            Parenting styles
            Freud’s theory of personality
            Reciprocal determinism

Testing & Individual Differences
            Reliability and validity
            Stereotype threat

Abnormal Behavior
            Each category of disorders

Treatment of Abnormal Behavior

Social Psychology
            Cognitive dissonance theory
            Social facilitation and loafing
            Groupthink versus conformity

AP Annual Conference Presentation 2013 - Flipping the Psychology Classroom

Friday, April 27, 2012

Why Video Teaching is Not a Shiny Panacea

Everyone wants a "good teacher." Michelle Rhee shouts to anyone who will listen to her (and she commands quite a crowd, mind you) that "three good teachers in a row" will make a significant difference in the lives of kids, regardless of any other variable. Pretty strong words. People are asking the very good question of "what makes a good teacher?" Is it content knowledge? A dynamic personality? Tenure? Student gains over time? Whoever answers this question in a satisfactory, measurable way will be viewed as the Second Coming of John Dewey, for sure.

Remember your most favorite classroom experience? The teacher probably possessed three main qualities:

  1. Strong grasp of the content
  2. Ability to relate information to novices that inspires desire to learn more, and 
  3. Intuitive managerial skills. 

But even this best teacher of yours likely struggled to engage students each and every day. Usually, good teachers mix it up each day or week by using a little bit of this (perhaps lecture or note-taking exercises) and a little bit of that (some group work or a game) and even a little bit of something else (maybe a student-directed long-term research project or some journal writing). What all good teachers realize, usually with some classroom experience under their belts, is that the same way of learning over and over will lead to boredom and restlessness, regardless of how innovative or engaging or proven the method is. Routine in teaching is to be avoided.

Two "revolutions" in teaching and learning have caught my eye lately. Both are touting their methods as the Way To Teach All Kids and The Future Of Education. While I think these methods can be done very well and effectively, viewing them as a panacea for what ails us in schools is likely going to disappoint everyone eventually.

The first revolution is the Khan Academy, which features a guy named Sal Khan who puts together videos of him teaching lessons on everything from history to art to physics. Sal has an easygoing way about him, and he does explain ideas really well to novices. He got his start by doing some vidcasts on basic algebra for a cousin who lived on the other side of the country. Those videos helped her do well in her algebra class, and they became a hit on YouTube. So, Sal quit his job as a hedge-fund manager and started Khan Academy, which boasts over 143 million lessons delivered so far.

In a recent 60 Minutes piece, we see Sal at his computer, creating a podcast with colorful, hand-drawn graphics of various lessons in different disciplines. Sal says that when he is teaching about a subject that he is not as up-to-date on, he will get "like 5 textbooks" (like any good teacher) and study up before he gives his lesson. He says his lessons work because of his humanity - showing people the "real time" workings of problem and how the solution is sometimes messy. He hopes that one day, teachers will be able to allow their students to work on Khan Academy videos at their own pace. He sees his videos as "taking the passivity out of the classroom" as students work enthusiastically on the video modules to earn badges that prove their learning.

The second revolution is the notion of "flipping" the classroom, which is loosely tied to the Khan Academy video approach. Two Colorado teachers, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, taught chemistry to rural high school students. They worked well together and shared basic beliefs about teaching and learning. They lamented that their students had to spend vast amounts of time on buses traveling to and from school, so they happened upon some technology that allowed them to video lectures and lessons for students to view on their own time. So, the teachers then began using class time to do practice problems and labs and left the reading and direct video instruction for students to do on their own time. Thus, their classroom became flipped.

From what I'm reading, folks are frothing at the mouth over Khan Academy and flipping classrooms. Bill Gates became a fan of Khan Academy as he used the "unbelievable 15 minute tutorials" with his kids. Google's chairman, Eric Schmidt, says that if Sal's approach works, it will "completely change education in America." Pretty strong, and powerful, fanboy love here.

I applaud Khan and Bergmann and Sims for implementing ways to reach kids who needed help. Certainly, the "old school" ways of teaching and learning were not working for those kids, and Khan and the Colorado teachers came up with solutions that used modern technology and social media to get the lessons out there. There is no doubt in my mind that students everywhere are benefitting from Khan's videos and from teachers being willing to give students responsibility for getting some information on their own.

But, folks, this is not revolutionary teaching. It's just good teaching.

Giving students videos to watch at home instead of droning on in a classroom while they sleep or doodle is just giving students responsibility for learning something on their own. In my own classroom, I would assign readings from the textbook and expect students to look at least at the vocabulary terms before coming to class. I would tell them that I couldn't lecture to them about everything they needed to know, so I expected them to read about stuff and come to class with questions, which we would discuss. I would make sure to instruct directly about topics I knew kids struggled with (negative reinforcement in psychology is a bugger!). I wouldn't go over stuff the textbook author explained well, unless students had questions about it. That way, my class was about tackling tough topics and questions, and we had time to do activities and demonstrations that were illustrative and hopefully fun. So I guess I've been flipping classrooms for a long time, but I didn't know to capitalize on my "method." I just thought it's what good teachers did.

There are some misconceptions about teaching that I hope to dispel in my lifetime:

1. Lecture is bad.

Lecture, when done well, is not a bad way to communicate information. Heck, lecture is essentially what the Khan videos and the flipped classroom are all about - they just deliver lectures in a shiny format. Recently, Princeton Review named my friend Charles Brewer of Furman University in South Carolina one of the 300 Best Professors in the Nation. Brewer is this charming, and a little crotchety (don't worry, we Southerners think this is a compliment!), ol' Southern gentleman who lectures to students, pretty much day-in and day-out. The thing that makes Brewer a good lecturer is that he is a good storyteller. Sal Khan should visit Dr. Brewer's class and see just how engaging his lectures are. A good lecture done well is just as engaging as any other teaching method. It shouldn't be banished from our repertoire simply because some folks do a poor job of it.

2. Any one method is the only method.

As I've written about in a previous blog post, some teachers confuse their assignments or way of teaching with their content. They believe that if their method works one day, then it will work any day with any group of students. One of the most salient things I learned in the classroom was that the best-planned lesson may work with one class, but it may bomb with the next. The most challenging aspect of teaching is to figure out how to be flexible enough to adapt the mode of instruction without compromising the content. I often found that students would eventually grumble and complain with just about any method I used, especially if I used it too often. One day, my students were complaining that we did too many in-class demos. Now, you'd think kids would want to do demos every day, but they were asking me just to give them notes! I remember thinking that I could have supermodels teaching the class, and after a while, the kids would complain about how the supermodels had funny accents and how they were always relating concepts to supermodeling.

It doesn't matter how shiny the method is, kids grow tired of it eventually and desire something new - or desire something comfortable and safe. Learning, regardless of method, challenges us to change in some way. Sometimes, kids don't want to change. The videos and flipped classrooms that are all the rage right now do reflect a good teaching method, but to claim they are the future of education is a bit of an oversell. Kids do like videos and interactive web-based experiences, but I can guarantee they won't like it all the time. They also like a good story every once in a while. And they enjoy group projects and a worksheet every so often, too.

I appreciate folks trying new things and engaging in a conversation about good teaching. But what we should learn from this is that mixing it up is the best teaching strategy of all. Keeping the kids, and therefore us, guessing what will come next will maximize learning for everyone. Our kids will learn how to learn, and we'll learn right along with them.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Don't Confuse Assignments with Content

If you are a teacher, what do you teach?

If you are a student, what did you learn in school? 

Chances are, you answered these questions with things like "history" and "math." If pressed for details, you would probably say things like "World War II" and "how to multiply." Schooling, when done right, will help students learn concepts and ideas and processes that they can then apply to any area of life. A pretty tall order, but certainly one that is worth the time and effort.

For several years now, I've been involved in revising the National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula, published by the American Psychological Association. These standards outline what concepts and ideas students should understand after taking a regular-level high school psychology course. The Standards outline content on three levels - Domains (which categorize the content into overarching ideas), Standard Areas (which correlate to typical units of study in the course), and Performance Standards (which define more specific ideas that might comprise a day's lesson). If I can take a minute to say so, I'm pretty proud of the work of my committee and those who came before us. It's a pretty cool document, if you think curriculum documents are cool.

We used to have four levels of standards, however. Our fourth level - called Performance Indicators - provided suggestions for what teachers could do to determine that students had learned the content. These indicators were written in behavioral language - they all started with a nice verb that was likely to be found on Bloom's infamous taxonomy - so that teachers could create active ways to assess student learning. We included about 5 or 6 indicators per Performance Standard so that teachers could have a variety of things to choose from or use them as a jumping off point for coming up with their own ideas for their own students.

When we went to revise the early versions of the National Standards - the ones with the Performance Indicators included - we sent the document out for comment to various psychologists, both those who taught psychology and those who practiced psychology. What happened during that comment period became overwhelming. Psychologists of all inclinations - both the teachers and the clinicians - blasted the Performance Indicators. Some indicators were too narrow. Others were too broad. Some folks wondered why some were included at all (That's so out of date! they would say), while others complained that their favorite activity was not included. As we culled together all these comments into one massive review document, we quickly realized that professionals in the field had little problem with the actual content in the Domains, Standard Areas, and Performance Standards. What they had incredible problem with was the suggested assignment ideas - the Performance Indicators.

This feedback process made me begin to question the difference between assignments and content. The psychologists who commented on the National Standards were confusing the two, in my opinion. The way they taught certain ideas or concepts had become intertwined with the very ideas and concepts themselves. Instead of seeing the Performance Indicators for what they were - suggestions for how a lesson might look if that idea or concept was taught - they saw them as the content itself. 

The implications of this type of thinking about content affects students every day. As a school administrator, I would venture to say that most of the parent phone calls to my office complaining about teachers and/or school can be blamed on this confusion. When teachers confuse assignments with content, grades become about performing rather than learning. I see this most vividly when working with students who have some type of disability, either temporary or permanent. When students with disabilities begin to fall behind in completing assignments in class, teachers who confuse assignments with content become uneasy and resist modifying or eliminating assignments because they feel they are lowering their standards and not teaching their content. The teacher's confusion causes them to hang on rigidly to their own way of doing things instead of being concerned for the student and finding ways for that child to demonstrate their knowledge in a manageable way.

I saw this most recently with a student who has a neurophysiological disorder that affects her motor coordination but not her intellectual capacity. She struggles to write, taking hours to even type out a paragraph. Her parents are willing to give her whatever assistive technology she wants, but she often resists such gestures as she struggles (as all teens do) with not being "different" from her peers. When her teachers ask her if she needs help, she often refuses, preferring to struggle through instead of requesting the help she is allowed. So, when her grades began to fall, and when one of her teachers took off points for not using the required MLA heading, her parents became incredibly frustrated and called my office, wondering if their daughter was getting the education she deserved. 

When I asked her English teacher about why he did not give credit for the non-MLA-heading essay, the teacher became frustrated with me because expecting the heading was so "simple" and "basic." He asked me, "Is it wrong to ask my students to do something they should have learned in elementary school?" I felt his question revealed his confusion better than any question I have been asked. Of course, it is not unreasonable for him to require his students to do the MLA heading. Doing the heading teaches them that there are formats they should consider when turning in work. Doing the heading helps them learn to follow basic directions. But, for this student, to give absolutely no credit for an essay that obviously required an extraordinary amount of effort to complete simply because the student did not do the required heading places the heading requirement over the essay. Any English teacher worth his salt should never think that a heading is more important than the essay it identifies. The ideas are what is important in learning English, not the clerical details. 

Instead of teaching his student with disabilities that taking care of the little details is important, he taught the student that neglecting little details overshadows your ideas. For this student, the details have always overshadowed her ideas as the world looks at her physical condition and projects it onto her cognitive abilities. If the teacher had not confused his assignment with his content, he would have been all right with this student's effort, gently corrected her neglect of the minor detail, and given her credit for her ideas, teaching her English content and perhaps making a life-long learning partner in the process. An opportunity was missed, of that I am sure. 

When you go to Google Maps and ask it for directions, it will give you four different sets - one for walking, one for taking the bus, one for riding your bike, and one for driving your car. There are many ways to get to where you are going, depending on your resources and time constraints. We should not insist that students arrive at our destinations in the same ways because they have different resources and different goals and constraints. That may cause some students to decide not to travel with us at all.

Resilience is about adapting as problems arise. If we are rigidly holding to our assignments as the only way to demonstrate content knowledge, we are not teaching students to find creative ways to master the concept. Imagine what we could learn about our content if our students were working with us to find ways to show us what they know. They might teach us a little something, if we let them.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Avoiding Traps in Defining Success

What does it mean to be a "success"? That question is not answered in a simple way.

  • Success is achievement. Specific goals are set, and success is claimed when those goals are met.
  • Success is attainment. Specific levels of wealth, power, knowledge, or fame are desired, and success is claimed when those levels are surpassed.
  • Success is accomplishment. Specific obstacles are identified, and success is claimed when those obstacles are overcome.

Recently I sat in a professional meeting where we talked about what the "main thing" was for our district, that standard we all seem to be trying to achieve as we educate students. According to the speakers, who had who had conducted many focus groups in the district over the last few weeks, the "main thing" for our district was the High School Graduate. All of our teachers, K-12, should be invested in educating students in such a way that increases their chance of graduating in a timely manner with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. The speakers talked about colleg and career readiness and the Common Core Standards and AYP, all of which have driven the definitions of success for our schools and our district.

This definition of success is certainly on the top of my list as a high school administrator, but I see the two traps inherent in this and any definition of success. The first trap is the Disconnect Trap. I think of the hundreds of students I have taught over my 14 years in the classroom, and I know their definitions of success sometimes did not connect with mine. While I wanted for all of them to go to college, I knew not all of them hoped for that future. While I wanted for all of them to make an A in my class, I knew that a few of them really wanted that, and some would not be willing to do what it took to earn that. Their definitions of success were disconnected from mine, and that disconnect made my students and me interpret effort, results, and success differently. If a student earned a low B on a test and didn't turn in a homework assignment, I may view that as a setback or failure, but my student may see that as a success, considering that he was shooting for a high C on his test and decided to hang out with his friends instead of doing his homework. In setting standards for our students' success, we have to remember to include them in our standard-setting. They have to be invested like us in the goals, levels, and obstacles so that the actions necessary to achieve success are fruitful. We have to be connected to them in order to understand and help mold their definitions of success.

The second trap is the Differentiation Trap. The big push right now is to get students "college and career ready." This push recognizes that there are skills necessary for success in both college and the workforce and that schools need to prepare students for a possible future in a college and a possible future in a career. For too long, college-prep and career-prep programs have resided at opposite ends of the educational divide, leaving students with an either-or choice rather than a both-and choice. But educators need to be careful when they say things like, "Not all kids are going to go to college." Even though the new college-and-career-ready focus hopes to make both college and career desirable for students, education has a long history of tracking students into paths that keep the college-ready from the career-ready. We may have the best of intentions, but to neglect the tendency to stigmatize career-prep education in favor of college-prep education is to open ourselves up to judging students before they are finished learning. We have to make sure our benchmarks for success do not keep students from having options for their future selves. If a student doesn't pass the algebra placement test in 7th grade, are they doomed to lower-level math that will not prepare them for college admission? If a student shows an aptitude for fashion design, do we keep them from taking AP Biology? If so, we are not differentiating our definitions of success to include those who may bloom late or who may have college-ready interest in different areas. We cannot fall back into "college or career readiness." We should not be the final arbitors of students' futures. We should be the providers of options for students' futures.

Success involves two important components:

1. The setting of a standard - a goal or a level or an obstacle.
2. An action that moves on toward the goal or level or over the obstacle.

By keeping the Disconnect Trap and the Differentiation Trap in mind as we define success, we can set better standards and plan more concrete action plans that will move our students toward actual success. Whatever our definitions of success for our students, we need to include them in the discussion and be willing to open our own minds to include definitions that we didn't imagine ourselves.

Let's define success in such a way that all students will look back on their K-12 education and say, "My teachers believed in me and helped me be successful in ways I could not have imagined." To me, that's the best definition of success I can imagine.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Benefits of a Bad Teacher

(Let's try this again - sorry for the original post disappearing...)

Bad teachers are all the rage right now, appearing in news reports, teacher rankings, Congressional and legislative hearings, USDOE white papers and summits, and even movies starring Cameron Diaz. If you are a bad teacher, get a PR person, 'cause this is your 15 minutes. Everybody wants to know your name.

But just as teachers in general are getting a bad rap, so are bad teachers. Bad teachers are not what they seem to be. Yes, there have been and are some truly bad teachers out there - if a teacher is molesting kids or leaving them unsupervised or cheating on standardized tests or totally neglecting their duty, that is more than being a bad teacher. That's being a criminal. I'm not talking about criminals. I'm talking about teachers who don't seem to be getting the job done because their scores aren't good or the kids are complaining or the parents are calling for their jobs or the administrators are annoyed by them. I'm talking about your run-of-the-mill, below-average, not well liked, bad teacher.

Defining a bad teacher is in the eye of the beholder. Some define a bad teacher as one who does not raise students' test scores during the time that teacher is in charge of those students (so called value-added measures). Others define bad teachers as those who are boring or who lecture too much. Still others define bad teachers as those who are too strict or too lenient, uncouth in parent conferences and with students in class. They are those who ask annoying questions in faculty meetings and who don't collaborate well with their colleagues. They don't grade every single assignment they give to students. They don't teach engaging lessons every day. They give out worksheets and "busy work." They lose their patience with students and their parents. They sometimes "phone it in."

The bad teacher is the one whom everyone wants to avoid, but no one can. They can pop up in any grade and any subject. They are the poster children for getting rid of tenure, and the ones parents call about to complain. Everyone has a "bad teacher" story, and these stories are the fuel that keeps the fire of outrage burning against the current status quo of schooling. Everyone knows bad teachers are out there, and they believe that getting rid of the bad teachers will solve what is wrong with schools. Simply putting a good teacher in the classroom will help all children learn and learn well. 

My "bad teacher" stories involve two math teachers and a history teacher. My math teachers were very good mathematicians, but they were pretty bad at explaining math to those with little number sense. My history teacher was the stereotypical "coach," who used my name and those of my classmates as multiple choice answers for questions ranging from who was the president during the Civil War to who signed the Treaty of Versailles. My son's bad teacher was his first grade teacher, who was so rigid in her expectations that he hated going to school each day. 

But the "bad teacher" stereotype is just that - a stereotype. The worst teacher I have ever worked with had a 27% failure rate - pretty bad, if not horrible - but don't neglect to note that he did have a 73% success rate. The majority - perhaps even the vast majority - of students did well in his class, many passing with flying colors. My son's first grade teacher was excellent with kids eager to please adults and follow directions. I succeeded in the classes of my own "bad teachers," learning about algebra, calculus, and American history enough to do well in subsequent classes and in college. My son also learned enough in his difficult, stressful, miserable first-grade class that he went on to subsequent grades and has since thrived. 

Aside from the curriculum, what I learned from my bad teachers, and what my son learned, was how to be a self-advocate, how to negotiate with someone whose perspective was vastly different than my own, how to handle conflict and how to entertain myself without distracting others. Just as everybody has a bad teacher, so too do they have a bad boss, a bad relationship, a boring meeting, or a bad customer-service experience. While we can teach conflict management and social skills all day long, we don't know what we're made of  until we are in a conflict. We don't know how we'll react to someone criticizing us or being unfair until they've criticized or been unfair. Strengths such as bravery and courage are unknown quantities until situations that require bravery and courage present themselves.

Calling a teacher a "bad teacher" attributes their teaching to some internal, personal flaw that  probably cannot be fixed. No amount of professional development can fix "bad teacher," according to the pessimists who are running education reform these days. And children who have these "bad teachers" are doomed if they go through even one year of "bad teacher." And blaming classroom conflict, learner misunderstandings, or boring lessons on a "bad teacher" takes all the responsibility for learning off of the students. They don't get an opportunity to take perspective, analyze interpersonal dynamics, and apply conflict-resolution skills. 

I'm not writing this to advocate boring, neglectful, disengaged, irrelevant, inflexible teaching. My goal is to shed light on the complex interpersonal dynamics that exist in a classroom and use even the "bad teacher" experience as a teachable moment for everyone. There were times where I was a bad teacher - I didn't grade every assignment. I didn't engage my students every single day, and not all my students passed the AP or state tests. I was named Teacher of the Year on more than one occasion, but I still had my days when I phoned it in instead of doing my best. But if I explained my bad teaching moments as merely "bad," I would have likely quit teaching a long time ago. I would have given up on myself and my future students. I would have thought there was no fixing those bad days, so why even try to have some good ones. I did not let my bad teaching moments define me, just as I would hope my students don't define themselves by their bad learning experiences.

Explaining teacher behavior in personal, pervasive, and permanent terms cheats both teachers and students out of teachable moments and the ability to grow from failure. Let's give our students the cognitive and social skills they need to succeed both because of and in spite of the teacher. If students can learn how to thrive with both good and bad teachers, then they can thrive in just about any situation they encounter.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Real Education Reform? In Alabama?!?

I'm going to write something that I never thought I'd ever write in the entire scope of my life and work: 

The state of Alabama might have the answer to education reform.

After you stop laughing, keep reading. Our new state superintendent, Dr. Tommy Bice, has developed quite a reputation in our state for thinking outside the box and, quite frankly, freaking people out. As a former special education teacher, school principal, and district superintendent, Dr. Bice knows what it's like to work in a school and deal with regulations, rules, and standards - and he knows that these things can be used for good and for evil. He's shaking things up at the State Department of Education, reorganizing offices and asking whether programs are truly worth the state's time and efforts. He's advocating some reforms that are making people uncomfortable, but that just might work. 

One reform that I'm a little geeked out about is Innovation Systems, in which schools can apply to waive or modify regulations in exchange for targeted accountability. Schools can waive certification regulations or modify expenditures. They can extend the school day or provide more flexible learning opportunities. In actuality, they can propose just about any change they want, as long as it benefits the students and teachers in their school or district. In return, the school must propose to track a minimum of two accountability measures - one dealing with student achievement (broadly defined) and another negotiated with the State Department. 

Two districts have taken the state up on their offer to be an Innovation System - Florence City Schools and Lawrence County Schools. In Florence, they have created a magnet school for fine arts, an industry-based program for at-risk students, and a project-based history/language arts program designed to increase success on AP Exams. In Lawrence County, they have developed a comprehensive, integrated agricultural curriculum that awards co-op credit for after-school agricultural work and integrates economics into agriscience and business courses. Both districts agreed to be held accountable to their own goals, which includes increasing overall and subject-specific graduation rates and scores on AP Exams and the ACT.

In essence, Innovation Systems are charter schools, without the charter.

These systems are publicly run and publicly funded. The schools are still run by the principals. The classes are still taught by the teachers. No federal or corporate money was spent. No parent triggers were pulled. Schools are simply being allowed to have the flexibility of a charter without having to give up all those things that make a school in the public domain. Dr. Bice believes that what's good for a charter should also be good for a public school. If charter schools are designed to do what's best for kids, why can't public schools be allowed to do what's best for kids? 

I think this program has two strong things going for it:

  • Schools can do what's best for kids.
  • Schools can determine how to measure what's best for kids.

I believe if we let schools out of their boxes, we will get ideas and innovations that meet students' needs and help students figure out what they want. I hope more school districts in Alabama take Dr. Bice up on his Innovation Systems idea. And I hope more states offer an Innovation System approach to their districts so they can see what educators can do if they are allowed to teach outside the box.