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December 16, 2011

The Work-Life Balance

First post in quite some time. I came across an article from the UK, in regards to the need for balance between work and life for teachers.

The article starts out:

"Teachers are, at times, a much-maligned and misunderstood community. Your friends will rib you about knocking off at 3 o'clock. "Oh, and you get all those holidays don't you?" they will quip. "How hard can it really be?"

To cut to the chase, teaching is a stressful profession. Many of those friends of yours who jest about your extended holidays will not understand the complexities and strains of being in the profession.

I will only pick upon one of the litany of examples that no doubt are popping into your minds to exemplify the point. If a businessman or woman is presenting to a client in any given week, how long do they spend preparing, even rehearsing their number? Hours of time is the answer, potentially even days. Yet as teachers we present like this every single day of term, with limited preparation time, with many of these presentations within one day, often consecutively. Add in the difficulty of managing an audience who are often sprightly, and sometimes uninterested, and you have a burdensome task in not just delivering your material but also stimulating your audience. Easy work it is not..."

Good reminder for those of us who have "Burned the midnight oil" on more than one occasion.

January 10, 2011

The Symbolic Virtue of Homework

A few days ago, I wrote that I would be posting a few messages about homework and grading. Part of my inspiration for doing this (besides my own questions about the merits of both practices) comes from interest in the work of Alfie Kohn, notably his 2007 book, "The Homework Myth."

So, for today, I bring attention to what Kohn entitles, "The 'Symbolic' Virtue of Homework." That is, despite the evidence that the practice of assigning homework doesn't ultimately lead to improved learning, teachers and parents have generally embraced its value based on the "virtue" of giving it. Or in other words, Kohn says, "The fact that kids are made to work harder, is in itself a sign of higher standards..."

In both my K-12 memories as a student, and as a current K-12 educator, I feel like the practice of homework has been, and is, excepted as a given - like its usefulness can, or won't, be questioned. Like questioning it might cause befuddled looks from fellow teachers and/or parents.

So, a proponent of homework might ask, "Aren't there some instances in which homework IS necessary? Don't kids need to do homework to reinforce academic skills like doing addition?" Or, "We should give homework because it teaches character and responsibility." Kohn addresses such statements in his book, and highlights a lot of research along the way, critically examining these beliefs for the practice of giving homework.

Next time I'll (attempt to) highlight some of the specific studies that Kohn uses to support his idea that homework really amounts to "too much of a bad thing."

January 6, 2011

Grades and Homework

So, Christmas break is officially over. We're back to school at Crossroads. I thought the students were in generally good spirits about being back at school.

Welcome back to everyone else returning to schools out there. Now we move forward on the journey towards June. Of course, as Jim Knight would say, the learning doesn't stop there. As the rest of the school year comes and goes, what to teach, how to teach it, and when to teach it, are questions we'll have in our heads.

One particular idea has been in my mind over break. I watched a DVD by Alfie Kohn in which he strongly criticized the practice of giving homework and grades. The DVD is titled, "No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning."

Kohn raises some interesting points about homework and grades, some of which I'll attempt to cover in the next few posts. Basically, he makes the case that homework results in a "2nd shift" for students, and doesn't really encourage deeper understanding of knowledge. According to Kohn, the practice of homework might help students do better on memorization-dependent tests (which he is also critical of), but doesn't help them foster lasting understanding and connections.

Grades, he believes, do not increase meaningful (intrinsic) motivation to learn. They lead to shallower learning and unnecessary classification. Indeed, some interesting ideas. Probably quite in contrast to what goes on in many K-12 schools.

December 17, 2010

Habits of Mind: Thinking Interdependently

"It's good to rub and polish our brain against that of others." - Michael De Montaigne

Thinking "interdependently" can take on many facets in the school setting. Teamwork; group projects; cooperative learning. These are some of the buzz words one might encounter in the K-12 classroom. According to Art Costa and Bena Kallick in their book "Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum," when students work with their individual strengths in mind, they must remember that, "Each member can only succeed individually...if all members succeed collectively."

In an age when test score focus and uniform learning might reign in many classrooms, teachers would do well to remember the creativity and inspired learning that can occur when students work together. And no, I'm not talking necessarily about letting partners do "group work" that involves answering some questions at the end of a chapter. It goes beyond that.

Costa and Kallick called it "Reciprocal Learning." Harvard Education Professor Richard Elmore calls it "The Principle of Reciprocity." While these two terms might take different meanings at different times depending on the classroom assignments or relationships, they both have to do with learning being a two-way (reciprocal) relationship, not a "teacher-to-student" one-way path.

In order for reciprocal learning to take place, teamwork must be emphasized and modeled. Other habits of mind also come in to play. As Costa and Kallick point out, thinking about your thinking (metacognition), thinking flexibly, and listening and understanding with empathy, are some of the habits that students (and teachers) must have to work effectively together.

October 24, 2010

Believing the Impossible

In Lewis Carroll's most popular story, "Alice in Wonderland," he writes of an encounter between Alice and the Queen:

"There is no use trying," said Alice; "One can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before lunch."

In schools today, children face a daily dose of reading, writing, and arithmetic - but do they spend time imagining of "impossible things" in school? Do they, in other words, dare to dream? Does dreaming intersect with learning? I believe it does.

As much as we focus on improving test scores by boosting academic skills, it is equally important (if not more) to foster in children the love of learning for learning's sake. If the way in which we teach leads students to dislike learning, we need to re-evaluate what we're doing. They will only be with us for so long...before they head into "the real world."

As Daniel Pink indicates in his book, "A Whole New Mind," the economy of the future is headed towards favoring the kinds of jobs that require the ability to innovate, create, and to "Think outside the box" - in essence, dreaming the impossible (and being able to make it possible), will be a sought after skill.

Let's not forget in our daily interactions with students, to take some time to nurture the creative minds of our students.

October 11, 2010

Do you Speak Cogitare?

Teachers have numerous conversations with students on any given day. How we speak to them, and specifically the questions we ask, can have a significant impact in their learning.

The act of asking a question seems simple...

"Did you get that problem correct?"

"What is wrong with this picture?"

"Can I help you with that?"

But if we really want to ask engaging questions, we need to probe deeper. In essence, we need to ask students to "Think about their thinking," otherwise known as "Metacognition."

In his collection of articles, "The School as a Home for the Mind," Arthur Costa challenges teachers to speak "Cogitare." He notes, "Speaking Cogitare simply means that we consciously use our language to evoke thinking in others...Do you speak Cogitare?"

Speaking "Cogitare" means we ask deeper questions. We get students to "Think about their thinking." Such questions (or challenge statements) might look like this:

"How did you know you were starting this problem correctly?"

"Explain to me how you know you didn't skip any steps."

"What lead you to make that decision?"

"Tell me another way to solve that problem."

When we ask students to engage in deeper thinking (about their own thinking), we help them take another step towards becoming critical thinkers.

October 7, 2010

Habits of Mind: Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision

In their book, "Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum: Practical and Creative Strategies for Teachers," authors Albert Costa and Bena Kallick describe the difference between communication that is unclear or vague, and communication that has clarity and precision.

There are numerous vague terms that many students (and adults) use on a daily basis. Some of them from page 52 of Costa and Kallick's book are:

Universals: always, never, all, everybody
Vague action verbs: know about, understand, appreciate
Comparators: better, never, cheaper, more
Unreferenced pronouns: they, them, we
Unspecified groups: teachers, parents, things
Assumed rules or traditions: ought, should, must

One of the tenets to communicating clearly is the ability to bring attention to these sort of vague terms. In the classroom, and at home, we can ask deeper, clarifying questions when those around us are not as clear as they could be.

For example, when a student says, "They never listen to me," you might ask, "Really? Never? They never listen to you?"

Or one of my favorites, "We're going to my friend's do stuff." What does stuff mean? What specifically are you going to do?

By emphasizing the need for more precise language with our students, we invite them to take an active role in critical thinking. We ask probing questions when they are vague. We help debunk generalizations. Ultimately, we help prevent misconceptions and problems associated with poor communication.

October 6, 2010

Sir Ken Robinson on Creativity in Schools

In another video from TED, Sir Ken Robinson shares his beliefs and observations about what teachers (who collectively make up a school), might be doing to students on a daily basis.

The Surprising Science of Motivation

Daniel Pink's most recent book, "Drive," is about the idea that intrinsic motivation (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) will (almost) always trump extrinsic motivation (awards, bonuses, promotions). If we can increase the "autonomy, mastery, and purpose" in what we do, we stand to be more satisfied with our own performances, as well as have a more positive impact in others' lives.

Below is a video of the presentation Pink gave to the audience at TED from last year: