The next time you need a gift for a college-bound high school graduate, forget Oh the Places You’ll Goand buy this book instead. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel contains advice for how to study that’s counterintuitive but that makes sense once you understand how the brain and memory work. We think we’re studying hard when we reread the textbook and our notes, underline and highlight, and then reread the marked up parts. According to the authors this strategy is not only ineffective, but it gives us the illusion that we have mastered material when in reality, we didn’t “make it stick.”
Rather than rereading, the authors suggest that students practice retrieving the information from memory by self-quizzing, taking practice tests, and using flash cards. This retrieval practice should be spaced and interleaved with other content because working hard to retrieve what you have learned will help you retain it, and varying your practice helps you transfer learning to other situations. The book contains several explanations and examples of how this works in the classroom, in the workplace, and for lifelong learning. Other strategies like reflection, elaboration to connect new knowledge with what you already know, and generation (trying to solve a problem before you are given an explanation) are also addressed.
At first I thought this book would appeal only to teachers who focus primarily on memorization and test preparation, but I can recommend it for any teacher and any learner. Even in an inquiry-based or project-based classroom, there are times when we must build background knowledge and practice skills. The strategies discussed in this book have relevance for everyone, and the more we understand about cognitive science, the more effective we can be as educators.
If you read this book (or have already read it) use the comments to share some examples of how you might use some of these strategies in your teaching.
That’s not to say that there are no good ideas in this book. The word “pirate” in the title is actually an acronym for the elements of Burgess’ teaching style: Passion, Immersion, Rapport, Ask and Analyze, Transformation, and Enthusiasm. This seems promising, but it soon becomes clear that he equates teaching with entertainment. Most of the book describes how he presents content in creative ways. I will agree that there’s a show biz side to teaching and acting lessons could help some teachers, but I don’t believe that good teaching is only about presenting information in entertaining ways. Throughout the book Burgess refers to teachers as “presenters” and students as “audience.” In fact, the word “present” (and its other forms) appears 94 times in the book. His approach is so teacher-centric it makes me cringe. In the Advanced Tactics chapter he actually says, “Nothing is more powerful than a master teacher standing before a class of students orchestrating the learning experience.” I know many effective (and powerful) educators who design learning opportunities where they quietly inspire and coach students without ever standing in front of them in an attempt to orchestrate their learning.
I also had a hard time with Burgess’ arrogant and condescending tone. He says one of his primary goals is to create a buzz on campus about him and his classes. In the chapter titled “Transformation” he says, “I am always shooting to have the most talked about class on campus and the conference session with the most buzz. That goal isn’t about ego, it’s about effectiveness.” This sounds a lot like ego to me. When he describes how he conducts his classes in the first three days of school, he talks about playing music as students enter because, “It is an audible reminder that they are entering a different world… my world.”
He does offer some interesting ideas that he calls “hooks” as ways to present content more creatively and to make the presentation more memorable. These lists may be a useful resource for teachers who are looking for fresh ideas, but most of them seem to have been chosen for their entertainment value more than for their pedagogical effectiveness. He ends the book with some thoughts that I can agree with, including the fact that not everything you try will work 100% of the time, but that shouldn’t keep you from taking a risk and trying something new.
So, if you have read this book and love it (as many people seem to) I challenge you to use the comments to help me understand its appeal. Do you think a teacher must be entertaining to be effective? Is attention the same as engagement? I’d really like to hear from anyone who was inspired by this book to change their practice. Did it make a difference? How do you know?
My next professional book on my summer reading list is Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. I’ve also been reading some fiction and I plan to add a separate page to this blog with my thoughts about the novels I’ve read. Watch for it in the navigation bar at the top of this page.
I’ve never liked textbooks. Early in my career, I taught 6th grade for several years in a school where the only textbook I had was for math. I gathered my own materials for science, social studies, and ELA. In those pre-internet days, this was not easy, but I had help from my school librarian and members of the community who would donate books and magazines. We had plenty of print content, I often invited local experts to come to my classroom to talk to my students, and we took lots of field trips. I think I embraced PBL before I knew what it was. I could not imagine teaching from a textbook and letting it define my curriculum.
Matt Miller promotes similar ideas in his book Ditch That Textbook: Free Your Teaching and Revolutionize Your Classroom. The title of the book intrigued me, given my aversion to textbooks, and I expected the book to be about the harmful practice of assigning reading from one-size-fits-all textbooks to a class of diverse learners. I was looking for arguments to use when I discuss literacy issues with teachers who depend heavily on textbooks and who have students who struggle to read them. Instead, I found arguments for teaching with technology which seemed obvious to me but may be helpful to some teachers.
The author makes some good points about ditching the “textbook mentality” which means getting out of the rut of conventional teaching including reading from a textbook, answering the questions at the end of the chapter, completing the related worksheets, etc. His ideas are similar to what I was doing with my 6th graders except now it’s easier with technology. He discusses using digital resources from the internet, creating your own resources and sharing them, connecting with experts and with other classes through Skype, and using social media for teaching and learning. He also describes his paperless classroom and admits to making many mistakes in implementing it. I especially liked Chapter 21, ” You Are Your Own Best PD” where he says, “But if you’re waiting for school-provided PD to answer your every question and guide you on the path of high-quality teaching, you’re waiting on the wrong thing.” I think many teachers will find this book reassuring with the apparent theme being, “I did it and you can do it too.”
So, here’s the question I’m pondering: How do we nudge teachers out of the textbook driven practices that they find so comfortable? I’m thinking mostly about high school teachers, although I know a few middle school teachers who could use some nudging too. Let this be fodder for a healthy discussion in the comments for this post.
Using grades to rank and compare, to reward and punish, to motivate or otherwise control student behavior is so engrained in our practice that it’s difficult to imagine teaching any other way. Returning student work with no grade on the top is unthinkable, but that’s exactly what Mark Barnes suggests in his book, Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning.
Barnes begins by explaining why grades are actually harmful and impede learning, and he cites the research to back this up. Grades are arbitrary and generally meaningless; they unfairly label kids, and they usually stop the learning rather than furthering it. Instead, he suggests using descriptive feedback to assess assignments or projects and giving students multiple opportunities to improve their work. He has developed a model he calls SE2R for Summarize, Explain, Redirect, and Resubmit. When assessing an assignment, he first writes a one or two sentence summary of what the student has done. He then explains what the student has mastered based on guidelines for the assignment. Next, he redirects the student to lessons and resources to be reviewed to improve the work and further understanding of concepts and skills. Finally he encourages the student to resolve issues with the assignment and resubmit it. Work is collected in a portfolio and when it’s time to put a grade on a report card, Barnes has a conversation with each student about their learning and the student determines the final grade. This sounds simple but there’s a lot to think about if you’re considering this, and the book is full of examples and tips for making this change in assessment practices work.
So, what would it take to make this work? Can we stop giving grades and instead focus on giving feedback? What reaction would the teachers in your school have to this kind of change? Would students respond well to it? Would parents accept a report card with no grades? I’d love to hear your thoughts about Assessment 3.0, whether you’ve read the book or not. If you want to learn more about how teachers are changing their assessment practices, check out the Facebook group, Teachers Throwing Out Grades.
School is out and it’s time to get serious about reading. Most teachers do some professional reading during the school year, but we seldom have an opportunity to read a book with a colleague and then discuss it. We’re all just too busy to coordinate a book club and keep it going. Summer (for teachers) is different. We have more time to read and reflect, but we don’t see each other every day, and face-to-face discussion just doesn’t happen. So, I’m ready to try something new. Consider this your invitation to join me in a summer virtual book club. Here’s how it works:
I’ll read a book that interests me and write a post on this blog with my impressions and thoughts about it. I’ll let you know the title several days in advance so you can get the book and read it too, if you want.
You read the post and respond to it in the comments. If you’ve read the book, we can argue about what it all means. (This is always fun!)
If you haven’t read the book, you can ask questions of those who have read the book so you can decide if you want to read it.
Or, you can just lurk on this blog, reading as much or as little as you want. Maybe you’ll want to join the conversation later.
If you’re very brave, you can write a post about a book you’ve read and I’ll publish it here. (Contact me if you want to be a contributor.)
At the end of the summer we’ll stop and I’ll put this blog on hold because, honestly, I don’t have time for this during the school year. We can start it up again in June 2016.
Interested? To get started, just type in your email address and click on the Follow button at the bottom of this page. Then you will receive a message every time there’s a new post. Clicking on a link in the message will bring you here where you can read about the books and comment if you want. Simple, right? The first book I’ll read is Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes. Okay, I’ll admit that I’ve already read it, but I’ll read it again and post about it this weekend. You can buy it from the publisher, Corwin Press or get it from Amazon. (There’s a Kindle version too.) The ideas in this book are revolutionary and should lead to a great discussion because everyone has an opinion about grades and grading practices. So, let me know what you think and watch for a new post in a few days. By the way, I read fiction too, but more about that later… Happy summer reading!
Each year, the ninth graders in my high school are asked to write a belief essay, inspired by the This I Believe organization. I’ve worked with students to publish their essays, both in text and in voice recordings, on a school website. As I read and listened to their essays, I was impressed with how these 14 and 15-year-olds could identify and articulate their core beliefs. They inspired me to think a bit about what I truly believe about education. I’ve been in education for four decades and I have often been asked to write something about my “philosophy of education,” but those little essays were usually something I put together in hopes of landing a job. I said what I was expected to say. I think it’s time for an honest inventory of what I truly believe about education as an institution and teaching as a profession. I have strong opinions about most education issues and my thinking often changes based on new ideas or new evidence. But in the last week or so I’ve tried to identify my most basic beliefs, the convictions that I’ve built my career on, and these are the five that surfaced:
Schools must be public. I find the recent movement toward privatizing schools very disturbing. I once worked in a Job Corps center that was run by a corporation, so I know what happens when you try to run a school like a business and all decisions are made to benefit the company rather than the students. Vouchers and charter schools are just steps toward privatization. I understand the allure of charter schools for some parents and teachers. We’ve all wanted to run our own schools, free of the restrictions and mandates that are placed on public schools. But if charter schools are better without those restrictions and mandates, why don’t we just remove them from the public schools?
Teaching is messy. No matter what the consultants, pundits, reformers, or your next door neighbor may say, there’s no one right way to do it. What works today may not work tomorrow. What works with one student may not work with another. To be effective, we have to make our best guesses about what may work, provide learning opportunities, assess, and revise. As Dylan Wiliam says, “Our daily experience as teachers is a failure, which makes it the best job in the world.” Nothing I have experienced or read has convinced me that there’s a direct causal relationship between teaching and learning. We as teachers can influence and guide learning, but we cannot control it. I believe learning is complex and cannot be measured quantitatively. This is not to say that I don’t believe in assessment. On the contrary, I devote a lot of time to trying to figure out what students know and can do, and I’m constantly surprised (positively and negatively). Testing can sometimes help us make decisions about what to try next, but test scores should never be used to compare schools, evaluate teachers, or close doors for students.
Teachers must be curriculum designers. Perhaps the worst idea to come out of the education reform movement is the scripted lesson. Delivering a lesson by following a recipe is not teaching. I’ve attended many national conferences in the past decade or so, and nothing depresses me more than to walk through the exhibits and see so many vendors selling packaged curricula and lessons guaranteed to solve all our pedagogical problems and get our kids to meet the standards. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ever purchase materials or use someone else’s lesson, but it’s the teacher who should be making the decision about when that’s appropriate, and the teacher should be free to adapt this material to meet the needs of her students. I’ve heard many administrators (and teachers) use the “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel” argument for using canned lessons, but I don’t buy it. When a teacher designs a lesson or unit, he’s invested in it, and his students sense that and are more likely to be engaged. I’ve also heard administrators argue that teachers don’t know how to design curriculum and that job should be left to the experts. If that’s the case, those teachers should learn how to do it and become the experts. As professional educators we must be scholars and lifelong learners who stay on top of new ideas and technologies, and who are better able to make content and pedagogical decisions than a consultant or a vendor.
Some students will never meet some standards. I’m not against the standards movement in education. I believe standards are helpful for goal setting, curriculum design, and assessment. But standards are just someone’s best guess at what students should know and be able to do. To say that all students must meet all standards is to deny the diversity our students demonstrate every day. I believe the mandate for proficiency-based diplomas is an opportunity for us to closely examine how we assess student learning and to determine what a high school diploma truly represents. A diploma should mean that the student is ready for the next stage in life, whether that’s college or the workplace. I believe that a checklist of standards met or not met cannot tell us this. The diploma awarders should take into consideration everything that is known about that student and then make a judgement. That’s really the best we can do.
To stay in the game, you have to play by the rules (most of the time). This may sound hypocritical, but I often do things that appear to be counter to my beliefs. I follow school policies and procedures that I don’t agree with. I have taught content that I believe to be unnecessary and a waste of time. I voice my opinion when I think it will make a difference, and keep my mouth shut when I know it won’t. I make compromises when necessary. Generally, I follow the rules because I want to continue to teach, and I want to do it in public schools. There may come a day when I decide that schools and the teaching profession have become something that I can no longer, in good conscience, be a part of. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. I believe I can still do some good.
When I began this blog, almost two years ago, my goal was to post at least once a week. That didn’t last long. I was also starting a new job at the time and I overestimated my stamina. The job and the other commitments I have to various education organizations and to my family kept posting to this blog at the bottom of my to-do list. When I started this blog, I thought I would use it to reflect on my work, ponder new ideas, and occasionally share a resource or two. It’s time to get back to that.
Although I haven’t kept this blog up, I have been blogging. This year I began co-teaching a semester-long Digital Literacy class for high school freshmen. In this class we use blogs and blogging as a foundation for teaching reading, writing, and other forms of digital communication. I started a blog as a model for my students the first semester, and I’ve carried it over to the second semester‘s class. I’ve been writing, but for a different audience.
I’ve often said that the most effective teachers are also the most reflective teachers. I have not been modeling that well. I believe I have been reflecting on my work, and I’ve shared those reflections verbally with trusted colleagues, but I haven’t been committing it to writing. For me, writing actually aids my thinking, and I know I should do it more often.
I want to get back to writing for the audience this blog was intended for – teachers and other technology integrators. While my idea of posting once a week may have been overly ambitious, I think I can manage some regular posting.
I’m not ready to give up yet. It’s time to start again.