Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Choice matters

Research-driven school reform. That's what many are calling for.

Shouldn't schools follow practices that are backed-up by research showing what works best?

Erika A. Patall, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin conducted a study of high school students in 14 different schools. In one group students were assigned work by their teachers. In the other group they studied the same material but were given choices of what work to do. "For example, students in a science class may choose to write a research report or conduct and explain an experiment in front of the class."

Dr. Patall's conclusion? "When students were given choices, they reported feeling more interested in their homework, felt more confident about their homework and they scored higher on their unit tests."

What's not to like about this?

"One of the other things that became very evident was teachers found this study kind of an imposition," Dr. Patall said. "They're not inclined to do this sort of thing, because it's more work for them."

Once again educational research confirms Montessori practice as best practice.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Student engagement

How do schools measure success?

Or perhaps, that is not exactly the question. A related question is, "What makes a good school?"

US News & World Report ranks colleges and universities. It is the ranking survey against which all others are measured, but it does not include any dimension of student experience. That seems like a glaring omission.

Over the past 10 years data has been collected by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) -- an attempt to focus on the student experience. (Want to read the NSSE survey?)
Does student experience matter?

"Teachers can increase engagement by providing more opportunities for student choice and voice in the classroom, and more hands-on activities that allow students to solve interdisciplinary problems, akin to what they will encounter outside of school." -Denise Pope, Stanford University School of Education

It appears that student engagement is an antidote to the kind of student stress portrayed in the film Race to Nowhere. More from the NYT Blogs...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reading of the day

by Steve Nelson,
The Huffington Post (from December 8, 2010)

“Tests, standards, accountability, economic competitiveness, managers, vouchers, data, metrics... does anyone actually care about children?Public discourse about education is unbearably impersonal. Nearly all the heated rhetoric suggests that children are nothing but small units of future production, especially in the saddest precincts of South Central, Baltimore, Harlem, Cleveland, Detroit and the other abandoned parcels of our divided nation.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

we want to be engaged

James Moudry and I just visited two Montessori high schools, Compass Montessori High School in Golden, Colorado and Grove Montessori High School in Redlands, California. Both are public charter schools and both have ten years experience with high school students in Montessori schools.

In each school we sat down with a dozen randomly recruited students to talk about their school experience. We asked, "How is the Montessori high school different from the conventional schools you attended previously, or that your friends attend now?”

Students spoke about academic content as well as the architecture of learning and how that impacts their personal development. They spoke about personal responsibility and freedom of inquiry. They spoke about the quality of experience as a learner. They spoke about the sense of community: the accepting relationship with their peers and the supportive relationship with their teachers.

Here are some of their comments verbatim:

Montessori school challenges us more.

I know everyone in the school, all the students and all the teachers.

We’re like a big family. We hate each other & love each other.

No cliques.

The geeks are the jocks.

No bullies.

Here you can be yourself.

People accept each other & their differences.

It’s a very accepting environment.

We’re all geeks and nerds here and proud of it.

We want to be engaged.

There are no cliques; we’re open to each other.

I like coming to school in the morning. My previous school was all about conformity. Here you can be yourself.

What makes your high school a Montessori school?
•There is a balance of self- directed work & teacher assigned work.

•The freedom let's people grow more than rigid structure of traditional schools.

•Working with hands-on materials. Learning is not just abstract.

•Montessori kids learn to ask why.

•We learn to see things in a different way, from different perspectives.

•We learn to use tools...practical life lessons.

•Our relationship with the We’re on a first-name basis. The teachers know our strengths and disabilities. Their trust in us is inspiring.

•Trust among the students very high. (One student’s senior project is to serve as a study hall tutor. Another student said of him, “We respect him as a peer and as a teacher.”)

•We’re able to find our own talents. (One student has been working for 4yrs rebuilding a tractor owned by the school. Other students spoke about the variety of senior projects, many of which involved service to the school, all of which involved a gift of their personal talents.)

•We're not taught WHAT to think...but are encouraged to think independently.

•This is the kind of school where everyone wants to sit in the front of the class. There are no “cool guys” sitting in the back of the room doing their thing.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

An inch deep and a mile wide

Here is an e-mail conversation I had with one of our parents, John Reed, who is a high school teacher in a Houston suburb.

The film (Race to Nowhere) is receiving a good bit of press. I am urging my principal to show the film and suggested we have a NO homework night once a week. (for honors students) (I'll institute it myself if she doesn't)

As an AP teacher and parent that is trying to stay aware of these issues, the film really caught my attention. Two quotes in particular stood out. "An inch deep and a mile wide" and "don't take 6 AP classes".

The first quote summarizes (for me) what is the absolute biggest problem in so many schools. That we throw a tsunami of facts and homework at the kids without slowing up to actually catch our breath and LEARN something.

The second quote was sort of funny but also serious in that 6 AP classes are ok for some kids but too many students are trying to take too many AP classes. They are just not right for everyone but there exists this invisible gravitational pull to take AP classes irregardless of other factors. (social, stress level, educational appropriateness,etc. )

I walked away from the film with a deeper appreciation of the type education my daughters are receiving now and also the film has made me take pause for the type of secondary education I would want them to experience in the future.
John Reed

Thanks, John Reed.

Interesting to read The Times take on the film.
John Long

James Moudry and I just returned from visiting Montessori charter school high schools in Golden,CO and Redlands, CA. Both schools have been in operation for 10 years and enroll approximately 100 students in grades 10 - 12 (they both keep the 9th year students in the middle school, maintaining Montessori's 3-year groupings.) Both were very inspiring. We learned a lot from them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

“You’re So Smart” ?

One of our third grade boys finished his spelling assignment, closed his book, and declared himself ready to work on his math.

His teacher said, “Open your math notebook. There’s a subtraction problem ready to get you started.”

“I hope it’s nice and long,” he said.

I was sitting there at the lesson table and was curious why he said that.

“Because I want to get really good at subtraction and then I want to get really good at multiplication and division.”

Two girls in another lower elementary classroom were learning to use the checkerboard, an aid to multiplication. Here’s the problem they wrote for themselves: 377,734 X 72.

They were on the steep part of the learning curve, but they were fearless. In fact, as soon as they finished writing the problem in their math notebooks, one said to the other, “I forget how to do this.”

I was sitting next to them on the floor and could have helped out, but I wanted to see how they handled this situation, so I offered no adult intervention. In fact, their teacher sent me over to observe them because I told her I was looking for students confronting a difficult passage in their work. These girls had already been given a lesson on the checkerboard, but were not yet independent using it.

As she walked by, one of their classmates said, “Do you need help?” She spent the next fifteen minutes re-teaching them how to use the checkerboard. At one point she offered to simplify the problem, shortening the mulitiplier from two digits (X 72) to one digit (X 2). They declined her offer. “We want to do this problem.”

Three years ago Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck wrote Mindset: the new psychology of success. If you have ever said to your child, “You’re so smart,” read on. If you tend to correct them whenever you think they’ve made an error, read on.

As a young researcher, Dweck encountered children very much like the ones I saw in our classrooms today. She observed, “Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, ‘I love a challenge.’”

Confounded by this unexpected behavior from children, Dweck asked rhetorically, “What’s wrong with them? I always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought anyone loved failure. Were these alien children or were they on to something?”

“Everyone has a role model, someone who pointed the way at a critical moment in their lives. These children were my role models. They obviously knew something I didn’t and I was determined to figure it out—to understand the kind of mindset that could turn a failure into a gift.”

“What did they know? They knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort. And that’s what they were doing—getting smarter. Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.”

At the heart of Dweck’s discoveries, after twenty years of work, are two opposing mindsets. Some of us see ourselves (and others) as smart or not smart. And we see smartness as a fixed characteristic, something we ourselves cannot change or influence. In fact, we might even believe that smart people don’t need to work hard to learn something. And that if you do need to work hard, this proves that you’re not smart. As parents, when our child learns something new we say, “You’re so smart.” This helps us pass on to the next generation that mindset.

Other people see themselves (and others) as learners. With this mindset, we understand that errors are a natural part of learning. We also see that learning builds intelligence. We expect that we need to work hard to learn new things, and that through our hard work we make ourselves smarter. As parents, when our child learns something new, we say, “You worked really hard at that, didn’t you?” This helps us pass on to the next generation that mindset.

Dr. Montessori said that we must help children develop “a friendly relationship with error.” This gets communicated in little ways and big ways and over a long period of time, helps develop a learner’s mindset.

When a child is running indoors, do you say, “Don’t run!” or do you say, “Walk”? Saying “walk” is not only more effective (children often hear only the last thing we say, so a child hearing “don’t run” hears only “run”!), it also entails no correction, no error. Hearing about the error is often the worst part. The control is external. You are being controlled and feel like you are being controlled.

This is a reason that many Montessori classroom materials have a built-in control of error: the child can check herself and does not need the teacher to tell her if she is right or wrong. If she is wrong, she simply re-does it. Errors are a normal part of learning.

If a child drops a plate and it breaks, he gets the broom to sweep it up. He does not need to be told, “You broke a plate,” (A comment that is often embellished with some additional insult about the child’s carelessness.). We are aiming to develop a friendly relationship with error. We are aiming to develop the mindset of a learner, someone who understands that errors are a normal part of learning. We are aiming to avoid a fear of mistakes, a fear of failure, which can paralyze a learner. If you are afraid to make mistakes, you’ll be reluctant to try something new and hard.

We aim to develop a curiosity about errors. A child mixing colors wants orange. She combines red and blue and gets purple. “Oh, that’s interesting. You’ve made purple. How did you do that? What colors did you mix?” Compare this to an error-oriented approach: “No, that’s definitely not orange!” An adult taking this approach might then tell the child what to do: “Mix red and yellow to get orange,” or even say, “Let me do that for you.” Either way, the message to the child is this: you’re wrong and you’re incompetent. Reminds me of Thomas Edison’s 10,000 attempts to develop the filament for the incandescent light bulb. Or Spencer Silver’s development of a glue that didn’t work very well (think Post-It Notes). Some people deny their errors. Or cover them up. Or get discouraged. Or throw the whole mess away. Or leave the workbench and go watch TV. Others maintain an air of curiosity.

What’s the difference? Mindset. How do we develop the mindset of a learner? It begins with our attitude toward error, toward effort and toward intelligence.