Saturday, April 11, 2015

Make Learning Harder, not Easier

I was in a class this week where students were reviewing addition of fractions  They had recently learned multiplication of fractions and several students confused those solutions by adding across numerators and denominators (like you would for multiplication) instead of finding the common denominator and adding the numerators.

This common error underscores a learning principle outlined in Make it Stick, the Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.   They note that many learning environments are designed to produce the familiarity trap.

Beware of the familiarity trap: the feeling that you know something and no longer need to practice it.

The students who knew how to add fractions months ago are now tripped up by that very skill because they have now been taught to multiply fractions and they are confusing the two solutions.

Many teachers tell me that students need to stay focused on one thing until they master it.  The familiarity trap tells us this is not the case.  When we stay with one thing until mastery (a luxury not afforded often in the real world) we will gain a false sense of knowing when we receive a similar problem that requires a different solution.

The solution is interleaving, which is practicing two or more subjects interchangeably so that they not only see the underlying differences between the problems, but will be able to discriminate between the problems and solutions when they face them outside of the sanitized and carefully organized classroom setting.

Let's go back to that fraction conundrum.  Teachers and learners would be better off practicing addition and subtraction of fractions side by side (which is exactly what was happening in those classrooms I saw this week) so they can see the different solutions that are required and be able to choose the proper path.

This  learning structure slows down and seems to frustrate the learner --- and the teacher --- however, it turns out, that it has one overarching, hidden quality - it produces deeper learning.


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Mark Twain, the Losada Line, and School Culture

This past week I received a compliment.  This person had nothing to gain by giving me this compliment and it wasn't one of those compliments that one fishes for.  You know how that goes...

"I'm the worst Principal on the face of the earth."

"No, Dan, you are an amazing Principal.  Everyone has a bad day now and then, but you're the best."

No, this compliment was not sought after.  It was a sincere expression of gratitude for my efforts at the school .... and it felt great.  There was definitely a  spring in my step and I'm sure my next few interactions with others was more positive and productive.  Not sure if the effect will last the two months that Mark Twain promises, but I'll take it nonetheless.

In the field of positive psychology Marcial Losada contends that just under 3 positive comments, experiences, or expressions are needed to counteract 1 negative experience.  This phenomenon came to be known as the Loads Line, though there is substantial doubt as to his mathematical proofs for this ratio of 2.9 to1, and it appears that we will need a ratio between 3 and 6 to 1 to turn the tide on a negative experience. The result is still the same - we need to intentionally share encouragement with those close to us.

After receiving the aforementioned compliment, and feeling that positive effect, I decided to head out and share some of that goodness.  I have focused my current teacher observations  by noting positive aspect that I could notice as quickly as possible.  No surprise that the feedback has been instantaneous and, alas, positive.  I'm encouraged to continue to look for those positive aspects of our school culture to foster their diffusion through the simple act of recognizing them more often.

For anyone in a school environment, I encourage you to take the same approach to building up your colleagues all around you. Here are three steps that I feel are crucial to this equation.

1. Know Yourself - Self awareness is one of the greatest obstacles to leading and encouraging others.  We all get so hung up on receiving the proper recognition or attention that we are often incapable of even noticing what others are bringing to the table.  The easiest way to cloud  your eyesight and miss the amazing work of others is to be focused on your own needs all the time.   Which brings me to ...

2. Observe - The power of careful observation can't be underestimated.  In order to give a compliment, you must first begin by opening your eyes to the contributions and impact of those who surround.  Great work is happening all around you every day waiting for you to discover it.

3. Communicate - Be specific. Be direct. Express impact.  Lately I've been switching to sending quick feedback to teachers as a text.  They get that encouragement sometimes while right in the middle of the lesson and early returns are that the immediacy of the feedback is appreciated.  It's also helpful to express the impact that this quality work is having on students and families.  Educators need to be reminded that their toils impact lives in a significant way.

Actually, what have you got to lose?  Maybe you're afraid that your reputation as a serious and tough minded leader will be compromised.  That couldn't be further than the truth.  You will gain a new found respect and apprciation for the amazing climate that you have jointly created.

A Gift Granted on Reading Comprehension

Grant Wiggins is on fire - sharing his thoughts on reading research and instruction over at his excellent blog.  Check out the entire series (He's not done yet) and don't stop until you've read the comments for some great example of arguing with evidence.

Part 1 Maybe we Really Don't Understand What Readers Do - And Why it Matters
Part 2  What the Research Really Reveals
Part 3 My 200th Post on Literacy
Part 4 Research on the Comprehension Strategies - a Closer Look
Part 5 A Key Flaw in Using the Gradual Release of Responsibility
Part 6 My First Cut at Recommendations

I especially appreciate his 8th suggestion on this last post.

Am I doing enough ongoing formal assessment of student comprehension, strategy use, and tolerance of ambiguity?

Just the fact that an educator acknowledges that we need to teach and measure something like tolerance for ambiguity is satisfying.  Mr. Wiggins is not settling for superficial teaching of basic skills.  He wants students who understand the purpose of reading, monitor their own comprehension and take ownership of the strategies they need to use to overcome that ambiguity.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Overcoming Discouragement

Weniger, aber besser (Less But Better)

Do you ever sit down with a stack of tasks to accomplish and can't decide where to start?

Do you quickly agree to take on another task when you know your calendar is already bloated?

Are you floating from one commitment to the next without finishing anything to satisfaction?

Then, Greg McKeown has written a book that could be a lifeline.  Essentialism is subtitled "The Disciplined Pursuit of Less".  This is an idea that warrants reflection and action for anyone who wants their life to be meaningful and avoid the pitfall of pursuing non-essential goals through non-essential tasks.   

The first step in creating that essentialist mindset is to ask yourself three questions.

What do I feel deeply inspired by?

What am I particularly talented at?

What is a particular need in the world?

Furthermore,"To discern what is essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make".  

This book has many more practical suggestions for living life as an essentialist and reaping the benefits of focused energy and effort toward that unique work that can be your finest contribution.  I highly encourage educators and leaders to not only get the book, but take the time to apply the concepts for your own benefit and the benefit of the schools where you invest your time, treasure, and talent.

In this podcast with Michael Hyatt, Greg discusses his book and offers an additional idea  - the personal 90 day offsite, which is a quarterly retreat to refocus on the essential goals in a systematic and regular fashion.

Here is an excellent review by pastor Tim Challies.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Evidence of Students Ownership of Learning

What's your evidence that students are taking ownership of their learning?

Are you looking for students who are reflective about the quality of their work and can articulate their areas of strength and next steps?

Do you want students to demonstrate curiosity about academic content?

Are you looking for students who show perseverance and utilize various strategies in solving problems?

I would agree with all of these and yet I recently found some less formal evidence of student ownership of learning that bears noting.  

The first student I came across, during Independent Reading time, was reading on Wattpad.  Of course, the 6th grader had to explain to this neophyte that Wattpad was an organic community of readers and writers who submit stories and read stories form other self publishers.  While the nature of this social literary community requires monitoring and guidance so students use discretion and engage safely, I was surprised to find that this student (I later found a few others) had discovered a literary community where they could read stories of interest and submit their own for the eyes of a wider audience.  This same student indicated that she had some writing she wanted to share but hadn't gotten the courage to publish quite yet.  Her classmate then chimed in and encouraged her to take the plunge.

My second discovery that same day was in another 6th grade class where I found a young man writing a narrative in Google Docs.  I figured he was working on an assigned piece from his teacher, but soon discovered that  he was writing a story of his own choosing collaboratively with a classmate (who waved at me from across the room). They had taken this collaborative tool and repurposed it for their own personal writing project.

I can think of no better evidence for students who have taken ownership of their learning then to see them choosing literacy activities, with enthusiasm, outside the school curriculum.   Of course, we will continue to look for formal evidence of student ownership of learning, but these anecdotal and personal examples are evidence just as surely, and should be encouraged and celebrated in your school, as they will be in ours.