Friday, January 09, 2015

What If We Just Tried It?

Michael Feldstein, Dave Cormier (1, 2), Stephen Downes and many others in the comments had an interesting discussion around student learning and engagement that's worth your time to check out. While I agree with Chris Lehmann that perhaps engagement isn't always the word we're looking for, I think the discussion in the above posts is using engagement in the right way; the students aren't just engaging in the activity, but in the learning.

You should read the posts (and the comments), but I wanted to pull a few quotes out to highlight and think about.
So. In this case, we’re trying to make students move from the ‘not care’ category to the ‘care’ category by threatening to not allow them to stay with their friends. Grades serve a number of ‘not care to care’ purposes in our system. Your parents may get mad, so you should care. You’ll be embarrassed in front of your friends so you should care. In none of these cases are you caring about ‘learning’ but rather caring about things you, apparently, already care about. We take the ‘caring about learning’ part as a lost cause.
The problem with threatening people is that in order for it to continue to work, you have to continue to threaten them (well… there are other problems, but this is the relevant one for this discussion). And, as has happened, students no longer care about grades, or their parents believe their low grades are the fault of the teacher, then the whole system falls apart. You can only threaten people with things they care about. (Cormier, emphasis mine)
I've had many discussions with fellow educators around these same ideas, and I find it interesting that we so quickly dismiss "caring about learning" as a lost cause, and therefore have to find all these other ways to coerce students into learning. I wonder if we would just step back and really think about that statement, and what it says about what we're doing, if we just might figure out that we're doing it wrong.
Why bother learning how to use all these “effective instructional strategies” when people aren’t even going to engage with them? (David Wiley, in the comments).
For my purposes, I might modify that to say "when people aren't even going to care about what they're learning." More and more I'm struggling with the idea of learning about what someone else cares about, for someone else's sake, which is what I feel like we're doing. Yes, folks will argue it is still for the student's sake, but if they don't care about what they're learning, then aren't we putting our needs in front of theirs?
The issue for me, then, is more the mismatch between my students’ desires to connect and what I, or the curriculum, wants them to connect to. Almost all my students want to connect to certain people, ideas, skills, and professions, but most of them do not want to connect to academic writing, the subject I happen to teach. Schools are not adept at, or even interested in, identifying students’ existing interests and playing to those interests. We should be. There is great capital in students’ interests and desires for connection, and we are squandering it. (Keith Hamon, in the comments, emphasis mine)
Separate from the institution of school, when you think about learning, doesn't it start with interest? Then why in school do we think we need to start with curriculum and hope that it will generate interest?
My take is different. I see education less as an enterprise in making people do what they don't want to do, and more as one of helping people do what they want to do. (Stephen Downes)
Stephen is referring to ‘education’ and not to ‘learning’. That word usually indicates that we are talking about the institutions that support learning inside of our culture rather than the broader ‘learning’ that happens as part of being alive. Our education system is always a victim of the need for bureaucratization. It’s terrible… but it’s a necessary evil. (Cormier)
I wonder at the assumption that it's a "necessary evil." I often argue the practical side as well, so I totally get what Dave is saying, but I wonder if we've ever really tried to do it differently? Given the affordances of modern learning (technology, access to information, connectivism, relatively high standard of living - at least in my neck of the world), perhaps we should examine the assumption that 'education' and 'learning' need to be so very different.
I’m suggesting that we need to replace the measurable ‘content’ for the non-counting noun ‘caring’. Give me a kid who’s forgotten 95% of the content they were measured in during K-12 and I will match that with almost every adult i know. Give me a kid who cares about learning… well… then i can help them do just about anything. We simply don’t need all that content, and even if we do need it, we don’t have it anyway . . . We currently have ‘this student has once proved they knew tons of stuff’ as our baseline for ‘having an education’. That’s dumb. (Cormier)
If you have a second, Dave, check out Matthew Lieberman’s book Social, particularly Ch.12 where he discusses education. He echoes your point on page p.282 where he writes: “We spend more then 20,000 hours in classrooms before graduating from high school, and research suggests that of the things we learn in school, we retain little more than half of the knowledge just three months after initially learning it, and significantly less than half of that knowledge is accessible to us a few years later.”
Brutal. Yet we continue to double down. (Dave Quinn, in the comments)
I think most of us know this, both intuitively and from experience, yet we continue to "double down." It's like we acknowledge that what we're doing is ridiculous but, hey, it would be really hard to do it differently, so let's just keep doing it.
The Gallup Purdue Index Report picks up where Wellbeing leaves off. Having established some metrics that correlate both with overall personal happiness and success as well as workplace success, Gallup backs up and asks the question, “What kind of education is more likely to promote wellbeing?” They surveyed a number of college graduates in various age groups and with various measured levels of wellbeing, asking them to reflect back on their college experiences. What they didn’t find is in some ways as important as what they did find. They found no correlation between whether you went to a public or private, selective or non-selective school and whether you achieved high levels of overall wellbeing. It doesn’t matter, on average, whether you go to Harvard University or Podunk College. It doesn’t matter whether your school scored well in the U.S. News and World Report rankings . . .
What factors did matter? What moved the needle? Odds of thriving in all five areas of Gallup’s wellbeing index were
  • 1.7 times higher if “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams” 
  • 1.5 times higher if “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning” 
  • 1.7 times higher if “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person” 
  • 1.5 times higher if “I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom” 
  • 1.1 times higher if “I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete” 
  • 1.4 times higher if “I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College]” 
. . . It really comes down to feeling connected to your school work and your teachers, which does not correlate well with the various traditional criteria people use for evaluating the quality of an educational institution. If you buy Gallup’s chain of argument and evidence this, in turn, suggests that being a hippy-dippy earthy-crunchy touchy-feely constructivy-connectivy commie pinko guide on the side will produce more productive workers and a more robust economy (not to mention healthier, happier human beings who get sick less and therefore keep healthcare costs lower) than being a hard-bitten Taylorite-Skinnerite practical this-is-the-real-world-kid type career coach. It turns out that pursuing your dreams is a more economically productive strategy, for you and your country, than pursuing your career. It turns out that learning a passion to learn is more important for your practical success than learning any particular facts or skills. It turns out that it is more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be . . .
. . . The core problem with our education system isn’t the technology or even the companies. It’s how we deform teaching and learning in the name of accountability in education. Corporate interests amplify this problem greatly because they sell to it, thus reinforcing it. But they are not where the problem begins. It begins when we say, “Yes, of course we want the students to love to learn, but we need to cover the material.” Or when we say, “It’s great that kids want to go to school every day, but really, how do we know that they’re learning anything?” It’s daunting to think about trying to change this deep cultural attitude. (Michael Feldstein, emphasis mine)
And there it is. It's a systemic problem, and we depend on that system to create order out of chaos and, of course, for our employment. It truly is daunting to think about trying to change this and yet . . . we should try anyway.

I think Carol Black nails it when she says,
This is when it occurred to me: people today do not even know what children are actually like. They only know what children are like in schools
I think we've forgotten that despite all the good intentions behind the idea of schools, and the fact that good stuff does indeed happen in them, they are terribly artificial constructs. Again, as Black says,
Traits that would be valued in the larger American society –– energy, creativity, independence –– will get you into trouble in the classroom . . .

When you see children who do not learn well in school, they will often display characteristics that would be valued and admired if they lived in any number of traditional societies around the world. They are physically energetic; they are independent; they are sociable; they are funny. They like to do things with their hands. They crave real play, play that is exuberant, that tests their strength and skill and daring and endurance; they crave real work, work that is important, that is concrete, that makes a valued contribution. They dislike abstraction; they dislike being sedentary; they dislike authoritarian control. They like to focus on the things that interest them, that spark their curiosity, that drive them to tinker and explore . . .

But any Maori parent knows that you have to watch a child patiently, quietly, without interference, to learn whether he has the nature of the warrior or the priest. Our children come to us as seeking beings, Maori teachers tell us, with two rivers running through them — the celestial and the physical, the knowing and the not-yet-knowing. Their struggle is to integrate the two. Our role as adults is to support this process, not to shape it. It is not ours to control. 
Last night my wife was talking about one of her first graders who is really struggling with school right now and she said something like, "He doesn't want to do anything he doesn't want to do." That makes us both wonder, "Then why are we making him do it?"

So many of the problems that our children have in school are a result of school itself, not any inherent problem in the children.
So one hypothesis is that American schools are not only assuming the normal developmental window for reading to be too narrow, they’re also placing it too early. In other words, it’s not like expecting all children to take their first steps at the average age of twelve months: it’s like expecting them all to take their first steps at the precocious age of ten months. In doing this you create a sub-class of children so bewildered, so anxious, whose natural processes of physical and neurological development and organization are so severely disrupted, that you literally have no way of knowing what they would have been like if you had not done this to them.
“Grade level standards,” please recall, do not exist in nature; they are not created scientifically, but by fiat. And there has been almost no serious study of cognitive development in children whose learning has not been shaped by the arbitrary age grading of the school system. Finland simply sets its standards at a place where most children will succeed. The U.S. sets them at a place where a really significant percentage will fail. This is a choice. In making it, we may be creating disabilities in kids who would have been fine if allowed to learn to read on their own developmental schedule. (Black)
So what if we stopped making them "do what they don't want to do?" What if we tried helping them do what they want to do?
We totally want to be in the business of helping people do what they want to do. Try it. No really. Just try it. Sit down with a child and help them do what they want to do. (Cormier)
What if we just tried it?

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

What Grade Should They Get?

If you've followed this blog for a while, then you're probably aware that I'm not a big fan of grades. I won't rehash the philosophical underpinnings of why I'd like to get rid of grades, but I thought I'd briefly share three recent examples that I think help illustrate why you might want to rethink the way you grade even if you don't agree with me that we should eliminate them entirely.

One of the big frustrations I have when discussing grades with others (whether that be teachers, students, or parents) is that the argument frequently comes down to an unfounded faith in percent. The argument goes something like this:
  • Well, we have to have grades. (I disagree.)
  • You have to set a cut off somewhere. (Why?)
  • This is the percent the student got, math never lies, so therefore this grade is accurate and fair. (Oh really?)
Recent Example #1
It's toward the end of the semester and a student has an 89.5% in a class. They turn in a review guide and get a 20 out of 20 on it. What happens to their overall grade? Does it go up? Stay the same? Or go down?

The vast majority of folks say it will go up. The answer, of course, is it depends. In this particular case, the grade goes down. Yes, a student who has an 89.5% in the class turns in their review guide assignment like a good student should and gets a 100% on it, yet their grade still goes down.

How is that possible? Well, this teacher weights their grades by category. This assignment falls in the Homework Category which gets a weight of 10%. Because this teacher previously offered some extra credit (which is a whole different blog rant), the student's percentage in the homework category before the review guide was turned in was 105.7%. After turning in her correctly done review guide, her percent in that category drops from a 105.7 to a 105, and her overall grade drops from an 89.5 to an 89.4 (which, for many teachers, is from an A to a B - most teachers in my building will "round up" an 89.5).

In effect, the student is penalized for turning in a perfect assignment. What grade should they get?

Recent Example #2
At the end of the semester a student has an 89.1% in a class out of a total of 2,389 points. What happens to their overall grade if they scored 1 point higher on one single assignment earlier in the semester?

Again, of course, it depends. In this particular case, it would raise their overall grade to 89.815% which, again for most teachers in my building, is probably the difference between a B and an A. Some of you will doubt that 1 point out of 2,389 can raise their grade from an 89.1 to an 89.815, but it can. This teacher weights categories as well, and one of their categories is titled Homework Checks and is worth 10% of the overall grade. Here is the student's scores in that category:

See that Slope Quiz on October 31st that the student scored a 7 out of 8 on? If they had received an 8 out of 8, their category percentage rises to 100%, which increases their overall percentage in the class by 0.715%, from 89.1 to 89.815.

One point, on one quiz, on one day. What grade should they get?

Recent Example #3
Here's a student's percentages in different categories for a particular class:

Homework: 100%
Tests & Quizzes: 88%
Lab Reports: 88%
Participation: 100%
Checkpoints: 85%
Responsibility: 100%
Final Exam: 74%

What grade should this student get in this class?

Well, we could have a long and valuable philosophical discussion about this, but the point of this example is that this student could get two different grades in the same class at my school. How? It depends on what teacher they have and how that teacher weights their categories. Here's what it looks like for three teachers of this class in my building:

And here's what that translates to for the student's percentages in each category:

These teachers all teach the same class. Students are randomly scheduled into their class by the computer. This student could have performed exactly the same and, in one class, received an 89.2% (a B), an 89.5% (probably an A, but possibly a B), or 90.4% (an A), because the teachers choose to weight the categories differently. Oh, and there are two other teachers of this section that grade on total points, so the student would have yet another percentage that we can't determine from this information.

The same student, in the same class, with the same curriculum, at the same school. What grade should they get?

All three of these examples are real, from my school, from the end of last semester, although I did manipulate the overall percentages for effect (but the assignments and student scores on examples 1 and 2, and the teacher weights on all three examples, are real).

So, even if you believe grades are worthwhile (or if you don't believe grades are worthwhile but you have to give them anyway), I would at least ask that you spend a little more time thinking about them. Your computer grade book is mathematically accurate; it computes exactly what you tell it to compute. But that doesn't mean it makes sense. You are the professional, and if you give a grade to a student you should come up with a more thoughtful way to assign that grade than simply relying on a percentage.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

You Keep Using That Word

Yesterday was our first day back after winter break and we had a faculty meeting (it was one of our few non-student-contact days). We heard from teachers, our principal and our superintendent (which is a nice mix, although I feel compelled to point out that there was at least one important group we didn't hear from: students). A variety of topics were addressed, but I think it's fair to say that "accountability" was a major theme.

Both my principal and my superintendent addressed standardized testing and, to be clear, it was very nice to hear from both of them that they believe we are testing too much, and that they are both working in the political arena to try to convince the state to reduce the amount of required testing. But I found it interesting that they both repeated almost exactly several sentences that I hear many folks in education use: "I'm not against accountability. I think accountability is important. We need to be held accountable to make sure we're doing our jobs."

Every time I hear phrases like those I find myself thinking of a line from The Princess Bride,
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Google gives me this definition, which I guess is as good as any. (I also find the use-over-time graph very interesting.)

Of course, since it defines accountability in terms of being accountable, we have to dig a bit deeper.

So accountability is being responsible for and justifying our actions or decisions. In our current environment, and the way that most folks in the education discussion seem to use it, that means using test scores to "justify" that what we're doing with our students is "working." Therefore we need some amount of standardized testing to prove that we're being successful, to hold us accountable. That's wrong.

The problem isn't so much with their understanding of the word accountable, it's with their assumptions of who we are accountable to and what we are accountable for. We are not accountable to the test, or to the state, or even to the curriculum - we are (or at least should be) accountable to our students. We are (or should be) responsible for our actions and decisions in relation to our students' wants and needs - what they care about, and test scores don't measure that. Even for folks who believe that learning is mastering a fixed body of knowledge and being able to regurgitate that on command, test scores wouldn't hold us "accountable." Test scores don't measure the quality of our actions and decisions while interacting with our students. And, if you don't believe that mastering a fixed body of knowledge and regurgitating it on command is "learning," then using test scores for "accountability" is even more ludicrous.

Test scores don't hold me accountable as a teacher; they don't make sure I'm "doing my job". Standing up in front of (or beside) students each and every day, meeting their needs and helping them find out what they care about, and then helping them learn more about that, that holds me accountable. As long as educators continue to agree and reinforce that test scores are the way to keep us accountable, we're never going to make any progress. It's inconceivable.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Data Doesn't Create Meaning. We Do.

I found this TED Talk by Susan Etlinger to be interesting in and of itself, so I think it's worth 12 minutes of your time. Several of the things she said really resonated with me, so I'll discuss them briefly after you watch.

At just past the one-minute mark, she says:
We have to ask questions, and hard questions, to move past counting things to understanding them.
This is reminiscent of the oft-used quote (usually attributed to Einstein, but he probably didn't say it), 
Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted
but I sorta like this one better. Because counting things is often a good thing but we can't stop there, we have to provide the context, the understanding, the wisdom to do something good with what we've counted.

At about the 6:30 mark, she says,
this is what happens when assessments and analytics overvalue one metric — in this case, verbal communication — and undervalue others, such as creative problem-solving
This sums up my main objection to PISA/PARCC/CMAS/fill in your own state test. We're so proud of ourselves for coming up with the metric that we've stopped asking ourselves whether it's an important metric in the first place. (I just finished Yong Zhao's new book where he goes into great detail discussing the history of education in China, and why the PISA results - and especially the conclusions assigned to those results - are almost meaningless.) We are overvaluing a metric that may (or may not) show how well you will do in school, but has very little worth in determining how well you will do in life.

At about 8:20, she brings it home,
And at this point, you might be thinking, "Okay, Susan, we get it, you can take data, you can make it mean anything." And this is true, it's absolutely true, but the challenge is that we have this opportunity to try to make meaning out of it ourselves, because frankly, data doesn't create meaning. We do. So as businesspeople, as consumers, as patients, as citizens, we have a responsibility, I think, to spend more time focusing on our critical thinking skills. Why? Because at this point in our history, as we've heard many times over, we can process exabytes of data at lightning speed, and we have the potential to make bad decisions far more quickly, efficiently, and with far greater impact than we did in the past. Great, right? And so what we need to do instead is spend a little bit more time on things like the humanities and sociology, and the social sciences, rhetoric, philosophy, ethics, because they give us context that is so important for big data, and because they help us become better critical thinkers. (emphasis mine)
At various time in my life I've taught students mathematics, so in some ways I'm a big fan of data. But the mistake we've made (and are currently doubling-down on with our new state tests) is confusing data with meaning. Data is only as good as the questions you ask, the way you ask them, the way you collect it, and - critically - how you then interpret the data.

Or, as Susan says at about 10:40,
if I don't know what steps you took, I don't know what steps you didn't take, and if I don't know what questions you asked, I don't know what questions you didn't ask
In education we currently have a love affair with data, without bothering to ask whether the questions we're asking are the right ones, or the only ones.

Data doesn't create meaning. We do.

Data doesn't define learning. We do. Or at least we should.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Data-Driven Schools: Homework

In my school's student handbook we state,
Homework is an expectation . . . Achieving students do homework at least 5 out of every 7 days . . . Do homework Sunday through Thursday, take Friday and Saturday off! . . . Average nearly two hours of homework each night.
Since we're increasingly encouraged to be "data-driven", I have a few questions.

Let's start with the "two hours of homework Sunday through Thursday." This has been an expectation since I started at Arapahoe . . . in 1991. I wonder what kind of "data" we based the two hours on. Why not 1.5 hours? Or 2.5 hours? Or for that matter, why not 111 minutes instead of 120? (We have an overly fond appreciation for numbers that end in 5 or 0.)

What kind of research did we do to determine that 120 minutes was the appropriate and most effective amount of homework each night? I'm one of only about 4 or 5 staff members who've been here since 1991, we've never done any research on this since then that I know of, and I don't know of any research that was done before then, so I suspect there is none. So if we just made up this number, how is that "data-driven"? Perhaps we need to sit down and rethink this and decide if that's truly the best number.

Of course if we did that, then we'd probably also want to look at the research on the effectiveness of homework in general. Alfie Kohn has been a longtime skeptic on the value of homework, so much so that he wrote a book called The Homework Myth. In that book he argues that the research shows no support for homework at all at the elementary level, and at the high school level there is only a weak correlation between homework and increased test scores (and, of course, that then leads into the debate about whether those test scores are meaningful or worthwhile). It's fair to say that he advocates for no homework at all, other than reading or self-assigned homework.

He recently wrote an article in the Washington Post about a new study that looked at homework and its effect on test scores and grades. In terms of test scores,
Was there a correlation between the amount of homework that high school students reported doing and their scores on standardized math and science tests? Yes, and it was statistically significant but “very modest”: Even assuming the existence of a causal relationship, which is by no means clear, one or two hours’ worth of homework every day buys you two or three points on a test. Is that really worth the frustration, exhaustion, family conflict, loss of time for other activities, and potential diminution of interest in learning? And how meaningful a measure were those tests in the first place, since, as the authors concede, they’re timed measures of mostly mechanical skills? (Thus, a headline that reads “Study finds homework boosts achievement” can be translated as “A relentless regimen of after-school drill-and-skill can raise scores a wee bit on tests of rote learning.”)
And the effect on grades?
There was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grade, and “no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not.” This result clearly caught the researchers off-guard. Frankly, it surprised me, too. When you measure “achievement” in terms of grades, you expect to see a positive result — not because homework is academically beneficial but because the same teacher who gives the assignments evaluates the students who complete them, and the final grade is often based at least partly on whether, and to what extent, students did the homework. Even if homework were a complete waste of time, how could it not be positively related to course grades?

And yet it wasn’t. Again. Even in high school. Even in math. The study zeroed in on specific course grades, which represents a methodological improvement, and the moral may be: The better the research, the less likely one is to find any benefits from homework. 
It's important to note that not everyone agrees with Kohn's interpretation of the data, but even most of what I've read in support of homework tends to show it having a relatively small effect on student "achievement" (I prefer the word learning, myself), and often ignores the question of whether this work should be done at home or could be done at school.

I find it interesting, however, that we haven't looked at any of the research, or any of the dialogue between folks like Kohn and Willingham, we've just decided it's good, and that two hours five days a week is the optimal amount. So why do we assign homework?

In general, I think there are three main reasons that I've heard teachers use (and have used myself).
  1. Students need the practice.
  2. I can't cover the curriculum unless I give homework.
  3. It teaches responsibility.
The research provides little or no support for number one. What little support it does give could be accomplished by giving them time in class to practice. At what point did we decide that school was so important that we decided to assign students a "second shift" of work at home after school was purportedly over?

Which leads to number two: there's not enough time to cover the curriculum. I agree with the diagnosis 100%, but not the treatment. Instead of assigning homework (and assigning students a "second shift") in order to cover the curriculum, we should change the curriculum.

I struggle with the increasing emphasis on covering more, and more advanced topics, earlier and earlier, and the emphasis on curriculum over learning. For example, we are now teaching topics in Algebra I (typically a freshman course) that we used to teach in Algebra II (typically a junior course). Why? And does it matter if you learn Algebra by age 15, or would it be okay if you mastered it at 16? (Or 25 for that matter?) We say we want to create lifelong learners, yet our policy is that they must learn things at certain ages that we determine (and standardize for all students). It's as if we think there's an expiration date on learning.

As far as the third reason, I have yet to see any research that shows that assigning homework teaches responsibility. In fact, anecdotally, I would say that it does not. How many high school teachers have you heard complain about students not doing homework? Yet we've been assigning them homework for years, shouldn't that have taught them responsibility by now? But, even if it did, would that be the best way to teach them responsibility? I would suggest that giving them meaningful and important things to do might teach them responsibility better than assigning homework of dubious value.

So, where does that leave us? If we truly believe that "data-driven" is the way to go, then the data is telling us that we need to step back and reexamine both our assumptions and our practices. I've previously suggested with textbooks that the default should be to not get a textbook, and then we have to justify why we need one. I would propose something similar for homework, the default should be no homework, any homework we assign should be justified. And that justification has to be well thought out and can't rely on any of the three reasons above, and has to also take into consideration the social and emotional health of our students.

And what about "average two hours of homework each night Sunday through Thursday"? Show me the data.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

What Do Your Last Five Tweets Say About You?

What do your last five tweets/posts/snapchats/instagrams/fill-in-the-blanks say about you?

What do you want them to say about you?

(I'd appreciate it if non-Arapahoe folks hold off on commenting for a couple of days as we'd like our students and staff to respond first. Feel free to add a comment if you'd like beginning on Sunday, October 5th. Thanks.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Data-Driven Schools: Sleep

Over the last few years there have been many articles regarding the research surrounding sleep. These articles not only focus on health, but frequently focus on the importance of adequate sleep for learning, and often focus on the need for teenage brains to get enough sleep (most of the articles seem to indicate that, for most teens, 9 hours is the minimum they need). The most recent, of course, was the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Pediatricians have a new prescription for schools: later start times for teens. Delaying the start of the school day until at least 8:30 a.m. would help curb their lack of sleep, which has been linked with poor health, bad grades, car crashes and other problems, the American Academy of Pediatrics says in a new policy.

The influential group says teens are especially at risk. For them, "chronic sleep loss has increasingly become the norm."

The policy, aimed at middle schools and high schools, was published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

Studies have found that most U.S. students in middle school and high school don't get the recommended amount of sleep — 8½ to 9½ hours on school nights — and that most high school seniors get an average of less than seven hours.
This is a topic I've brought up frequently over the last few years, but it has gained very little traction. It's not that folks disagree with the research or the recommendation, it's mainly the problems it causes in three areas: after school daycare (older students watching their younger siblings), after school sports (practices and games), and after school employment. While I agree that those are real issues we should consider and tried to help mitigate, I don't think they should take precedence over our students' health and learning.

(I'm not sure I agree with the Executive Director of the National State Boards of Education who is quoted in that article suggesting that it's costs related to busing that's the problem. All school start times could simply be shifted later, or secondary schools could be shifted to start after elementaries - neither would affect the cost of busing.) 

Our student newspaper staff just did a survey where they asked a variety of questions and, interestingly, one of them was about sleep. Let me be clear, this is not a scientifically valid study, but given the sample size (323 students out of roughly 2150) and the distribution method (all students received a link in their student email accounts, so decently random), I think the data is going to be reasonably accurate.

The newspaper staff polled upperclassmen (11th and 12th graders) separate from underclassmen (9th and 10th), although the data for sleep was fairly similar. The choices students had were: less than 5, 5-6, 6-7, 7-8, and more than 8 hours of sleep. For both underclassmen and upperclassmen the median response was 6-7 hours, with the distribution of both groups skewing toward the left (fewer hours of sleep), with upperclassmen a bit more skewed than underclassmen.

So now we have some reasonably actionable data about our students. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8½ to 9½ hours (with some studies recommending slightly more), and our students are reporting they get between 6-7 hours a night, with a significant number getting even less than that. (I should probably also mention that first period for us starts at 7:21 a.m.)

So I find it interesting in this age where schools are increasingly "encouraged" to be data-driven (at least when we're talking about test scores), that this set of data doesn't appear to be driving anything (except decreased health, increased accidents, and decreased learning for our students). While I frequently question data-driven decision making related to test scores (because I question the quality and meaningfulness of the data itself), in this case I think the data is pretty clear-cut: our students are not getting enough sleep, and it's adversely affecting their well being.

I wonder if we're willing to take on the challenge of making the right decision for our students' health and learning, even if it means inconveniencing adults?

Saturday, September 20, 2014


This is a great example of poetry and digital storytelling to share with your students, not to mention a subject worth discussing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Little Respect Goes A Long Way

A few years back Daniel Pink wrote about emotionally intelligent signage in A Whole New Mind. It's the idea that we have choices when we create signs, and that if we create them with how humans will react to them in mind, we will likely be more successful. More recently, Thaler and Sunstein wrote about the idea that we can subtly "nudge" people into behaviors that are more productive for them - and for society.

Here's an example of an emotionally intelligent sign, instead of the typical "Slow Down" or "Fines Doubled in School Zone", they went with:

To me, a lot of it comes down to respect, and to making the conscious choice to assume that people will, more often than not, make a good choice rather than a bad one. In general, I think my school does a pretty good job with this. Compared to many high schools of our size, we give our students a fair amount of freedom, and assume that - with help - they will usually make the right decision. But that doesn't mean we can't improve.

Eight years ago I wrote this post when these signs started appearing around the building:

In response, I posted a sign outside my room that said something like:
Please get out your Cell Phones, iPods and Electronic Devices and use them to enhance your learning during class.
I felt it sent a much better message to our students. Regrettably, I still see many of the "no cell phone" signs around the building (in fact, I took the above image today), yet none of the "use them to enhance" signs.

I was reminded of this issue because we have new digital signage around the building this fall. Typically the slides are created once a week, with occasional additions or subtractions during the week. We are now in Week 5 and I believe this is the only slide that has appeared every day this school year.

Let me be clear, I think it's important that we have an open campus and I think it shows respect for our students. I also agree that some students struggle with this freedom and so therefore need some help managing this, which sometimes means they have their open campus privileges temporarily replaced with Study Center until they get the hang of it. Having said that, I'm not a fan of the above slide (or having it play over and over again on the digital signage).

I think there are a variety of ways we could communicate this message in a more positive, emotionally intelligent way. Here's one, although you can probably come up with some better ways.

I think this communicates essentially the same message, only in a much more positive, respectful way. The way we currently have it phrased, it's threatening: "screw up and we'll take it away." Phrased this way, it assumes that most students will handle the responsibility well (and 98% of them do).

There are a variety of other signs around the building (and I imagine your building as well) that should perhaps be rethought. Perhaps instead of "No Food or Drink in the Halls!" we could say,
Our custodians work really hard. Let's help them out by enjoying our food and drink in the cafeteria, and cleaning up any spills. Thanks!
Or maybe your Class Expectations include a long list of "don'ts", why not trying something more like:

I think a little respect goes a long way.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Textbook Is Not The Curriculum

I thought I'd give a little update on two of my previous posts. Despite overwhelming opposition by the professionals that we pay to teach our students mathematics, our district went ahead and adopted the Agile Mind materials. The rollout this fall has been less than smooth, including many technical issues that have been slow to be addressed (students not being able to login, students not being able to load the materials, some of the materials loading but not others, etc.). We are diligently working through those technical issues and I imagine we will solve them reasonably soon.

But the other concerns the professional mathematics educators expressed regarding the materials are not so easily addressed, and many of them are coming up in the day-to-day use of these materials. The Algebra team at my school (Algebra being the only course where they are required to use the Agile Mind materials at this point, although Geometry and Algebra II will be required in the future) has been extremely frustrated up to this point. Being the dedicated teachers that they are, they aren't giving up, they are still trying their best to make this work, but they have been burdened by the expectation that they must use these materials. (And, as stated previously, Agile Mind seems to be designed to work as a script, not a resource.)

As a result of the technical problems with Agile Mind, I have had a fair amount of interaction with the Algebra teachers around Agile Mind (full disclosure: I'm not teaching Algebra this year so am not experiencing this myself), and I've mentioned several times that they don't have to use these materials. Like any textbook or other approved materials, it is simply a resource for them to use. The only expectation of them is to help students learn the mathematics curriculum as decided by the Board of Education, and they can use their professional judgement on how best to do that. Every time I've brought this up they look at me and say, essentially, they been told they must use these materials. (Apparently it was even mentioned that the district can "track" how often students log in, and therefore how often teachers are using the materials, although it's somewhat unclear as to which half of this the emphasis was being placed on.)

Which brings me to why I'm writing this post. I have a daughter who is in ninth grade and is taking Algebra at Arapahoe, so therefore is using the Agile Mind materials. She recently brought home a letter from the district saying that all the students would be surveyed three times throughout the course of the year to help determine the impact on mathematics instruction and achievement of the use of the Agile Mind materials. The purpose of the letter was to allow us to opt-out of the survey if we wished, per School Board policy.

Normally we wouldn't have any issue with our daughter taking a survey such as this but, for the first time, we are choosing to opt her out. It's not just because of the 45 minutes of mathematics learning she will miss out on while they are taking this survey, although that's certainly part of it. But it's because of the letter itself, and how it reflects on the above discussion and my previous blog posts. Here's the full text of the letter.

Do you notice anything about this letter? Here's what I noticed. It refers to the Agile Mind Curriculum in the header and three separate times in the the first paragraph. It's not a curriculum, it's materials that have been adopted to support the curriculum. This may indeed just be a slip of the keyboard (although four times in one paragraph is a whole lot of slippin'), but the problem is that - whether it's a slip or not - that is exactly how it's being implemented by the district. It's being treated as a curriculum, not in support of the curriculum. Not only is this exactly what the professional teachers of mathematics feared back in the spring when we were discussing this, it is in direct violation of the curriculum adoption process in our school district.

I've stated before that I think the materials adoption process in our district is deeply flawed, but at least it was a process that was more-or-less followed, even though the results of that process were not ideal. But clearly the process for curriculum adoption was not followed, and so for the district to now be referring to this as the Agile Mind Curriculum in a formal communication home to parents is stunning.

So, as a professional educator, as someone who has a fair amount of experience teaching students mathematics, as someone who is fairly well connected to the on-going discussions around learning and what's best for our students, as a staff member in Littleton Public Schools and at Arapahoe High School, and as a citizen and taxpayer, I have a question. But let's ignore all those roles and I'm just going to ask this question from one perspective:
As a parent of a ninth grader enrolled in Algebra at Arapahoe High School in Littleton Public Schools, I'd like to know what the LPS School Board is going to do about this?