This year’s theme: CURIOSITY

Thanks to the beautiful minds in my Professional Learning Network, I recently discovered Jon Gordon’s appropriately short book One Word.  The book explores the idea that focusing on a single word is a very powerful way to make change in one’s life.  As someone who constantly looks for ways to improve and seeks out feedback from the other people in my life, I try to find a theme for each year.  In the past, I have made attempts to focus on specific changes like writing more or student-centered learning.

This year, through all of my various forms of personal development, I will be focusing on the idea of curiosity.  I want to spend more time thinking about my own curiosity as well as the curiosity of my students.  I want to find opportunities to encourage my own questioning, modeling for my students how to be a scientist in life.  But, I also want to make time in my lessons to recognize, reward, and reinforce a sense of wonder among my students.  As Sir Ken Robinson has often remarked, the public school system has a knack for squeezing the divergent thinking right out of students (and teachers alike).

I like this goal because it’s more holistic than focusing on specific classroom techniques, but it’s also more sustainable.  For my students and myself, curiosity is a behavior that has long-lasting implications for all aspects of our lives.  Curiosity is the trait that makes people want to learn more about science and the world around them.  A world with more curiosity and wonder is a world ripe for science education to help students find answers to those questions in their imagination.

To follow my year-long journey of curiosity, check back here at the blog and follow me on Twitter and Instagram (@mrscienceteach on both) where I will be posting the questions that occur to my throughout my day.  And keep the curiosity flowing by commenting here and everywhere online that you find ideas that make you think.

A Holiday Gift for iPhone Users

As someone who gets paid to help people use iPhones, I thought I would take a moment to share a feature of iOS that many people don’t know about.  It’s a feature designed for people with focus issues, autism, or physical disabilities.  But it’s also very handy when you want to let a young child use your iPhone, but you don’t want them rummaging around in your apps and personal information.  Watch the short (3-minute) video below to learn how easy it is.  And take some time with your loved ones this winter to relax and enjoy the company.


creatingacultureoffeedback-265This will just be a short note to accompany the release of my first book, Creating a Culture of Feedback, which is available in print form on Tuesday, November 23 and in ebook format right now.   I’d love to be able to say that writing this book (or any book) has been a dream of mine for years.  The truth, however, is more complicated.

I have spent much of the past ten years learning everything that I can about grading and assessment.  As a classroom teacher, I’ve been able to put into practice many of the ideas that I’ve concocted and see the results.  I get to talk to my colleagues and learn from them and then meld the best of what I’ve learned into powerful experiences for my students.  Everything that I am as a teacher is a product of the conversations and experiences that have included many of the important educators that I know.

It’s one of these educators to whom I owe a tremendous debt.  Bill Ferriter came into my life when I was just a few years into my career.  It was just serendipity that we teach in the same district.  But, it was more than luck that has made us friends.  We have spent many hours—over beer, the occasional salad, or Moons Over My Hammy—talking about important issues like technology integration and reality television.  Over that time, my respect for Bill has only grown.

So, a year ago, when he asked me to write a book with him, I jumped at the opportunity.  Over the intervening months, he taught me so much about the process.  He helped me craft my ideas into meaningful pages.  He found ways to merge our voices into one coherent piece of work.  He showed incredible patience with me and my incessant procrastination.  In short, Bill was the perfect mentor and partner for a first-time author.  I am enormously grateful.

And now the fruit of our efforts is available to the public, in the form of an 80-page book that lays out practical and effective strategies for putting actionable feedback front and center in your classroom.  You should read it.  And when you do, I hope that you recognize the value of what we do and can find ways to use these strategies in your own classroom.

New data shows that suicide attempts by middle school aged children is on the rise:

“There’s a perception that children don’t kill themselves, but that’s just not true. A new report shows that, for the first time, suicide rates for U.S. middle school students have surpassed the rate of death by car crashes.”

As a society, this problem should be a priority for our time, effort, and funding.

Personalized Review for Tests and Quizzes

my_secret_agent_feat-_traci_hines_-_single_1We all dread that moment when a well-planned review day before a big test fails to motivate our students to dig deeper into the concepts that you are teaching.  It might be struggling students who need more review of fundamental skills.  Or, perhaps it’s advanced students who are bored with reviewing material that they already know.  Either way, the result is the same: students are not motivated to review because the activities are not matched to their needs.  In these moments, I call on Secret Agent Code Name.

Secret Agent Code Name is what I call a fairly simple activity based on the idea of differentiated remediation.  Using formative assessment data, I provide each student with activities that will push them to better master the standards that will be measured on an upcoming test.  Rather than a one-size-fits-all review, students enjoy the personalization that comes from this exercise.  It also ensures that the students who have already mastered a particular standard get to pursue more advanced learning.

Secret Agent Code Name works because it uses assessment data to match students with the best review for them.  I prefer MasteryConnect for my formative assessments, but any data will do.  You need the data to be arranged by topic/standard, and you need to be able to assign each student to one of two or three “levels of mastery”.  MasteryConnect does this for me automatically as students finish the short formative assessments, so that’s one of the big reasons I use it.

The next step is to create or find activities that are designed to either remediate or extend learning for each of the learning targets/standards.  I use Puzzlemaker and Quizlet for building vocabulary with those who need help.  For the students who have already shown mastery, I often get them to create puzzles or quizzes for their peers.  Paper-slide videos can be a great way to extend learning for the more proficient students by getting them to explain a difficult concept.

Even worksheets—the bane of every enlightened educator—can be a decent resource to focus additional learning time on those who need to make progress in a specific area before an upcoming summarize assessment.   I find that I only use the materials that came with my textbook during these Secret Agent Code Name review days.  They are a simple way to provide extra reinforcement to the kids who need it.

The overall goal of these activities is for students to make progress toward mastery or to extend their mastery prior to taking a summative assessment.  So, I want them to understand that the activities that they are doing are designed to get them ready for that challenge.  Their independent work time provide me with an opportunity to walk around the room and provide feedback and guidance as needed.  A whole class review takes away my chance to help each student, and leaves them feeling like sheep herded into a pen.  Secret Agent Code Name is a great way to make your students understand that each of them can improve and that you think of them as individual learners.  #growthmindset #winning

Is It Time for Apprenticeship in Core Classes?

gardenerandthecarpenter-sm-e1475697796568I just finished reading Alison Gopnik’s brand-new book “The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children” and it has my brain buzzing with ideas and questions.

Most of the thinking is around apprenticeship and the value that it brings to learning.  Humans have learned through this process of repeated trials for millennia, and it is used in many specialized classrooms like music, art, and athletics.  Yet, it’s clear we don’t do enough of it in core classes.

When I think about apprenticeship, the harsh experience of chefs on Gordan Ramsay’s reality shows always comes to mind.  Apprenticeship is often a brutal and demanding way to learn a complicated skill.  It requires the student to face the errors that they have made in real and tangible ways.  It moves the learner along slowly as they master each part of the complex task.  It demands from the student a high level of motivation.

Yet, this is not too different from the traditional grading system.  Students typical try a simpler version of the final skill and build up to the final task.  They often fail, and the best teachers give them multiple opportunities to succeed.  But, it’s the inclusion of powerful—honest—feedback and repetitive practice make this a uniquely powerful way to learn skills.

I also like the way that this ties into Dylan Wiliam’s idea that feedback should be detective work for the student.  If we give students multiple attempts and provide honest feedback in between, we are putting them in the driver’s seat of their own success.  We force them to find what was lacking in their previous attempt and correct it.  It’s the same routine as learning to play a level in a video game by playing it over and over again—dying each time—to eventually succeed.

The troubling aspect of apprenticeship for me is the idea that the teacher is a seasoned expert who alone determines whether the student has show proficiency.  While this is how education has worked in the past, it is clearly not what is needed for a future where expertise can be found in myriad places online.  We need to step away from positions of sole authority in the classroom and empower our students to assess themselves.

Can apprenticeship change learning in our schools without venerating old ideas about where knowledge comes from?

Another nail in the coffin of grades

4097009340_4175110833_bI talk a lot about grades.  To friends.  To colleagues.  To random strangers at my second job.   A lot.

And one of the biggest points that I try to make is that assessment should be a measurement of mastery that helps the learner and their “community of support” (parents, teachers, coaches, etc) to have the information that they need to improve mastery.  We destroy the constructive potential of assessment when we give it too much importance.  When students are driven to “succeed” on tests and grades and not to improve themselves, the effects can be devastating.

Linda Flanagan tackles the emotional toll of grades in a new piece for KQED’s MindShift blog and it’s a must-read for anyone who has an opinion about grades.  Which is, you know, everyone.  In the article, she cites recent research by scientists at USC that shows how grades become the motivator for students, robbing them of intrinsic motivation to learn.  Students who once paid attention in class, and continued learning at home, begin to focus only on the work that affects their grade.  This is obviously not the kind of behavior that leads to lifelong learning or independent learning.

The researcher, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, writes that “students’ knowledge of a subject is tied to their experience of the grade”.  The way that students perform is therefore directly connected to the effect of the grade.  I think that more teachers need to understand the consequences of using grades as motivators.  As Immordino-Yang puts it,

“Whether the grade is good or bad, you’re taking the student away from focusing on intrinsic interest and tying their experience to grades”

Add this to the list of reasons that we need to redirect our attention on meaningful feedback rather than high-stakes letters.

What’s your take?  Put it in a comment.

photo credit: Flickr user anniferrr