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.