Thursday, September 28, 2017

Knowledge, Belief, and the Professional Educator

I imagine that most of those who read this blog accept climate change and the human impact on climate change as settled science. We've seen the evidence; we've heard from the experts and we have reached an informed conclusion. This is a good thing and one that most Americans not in the White House or in denial for economic and political reasons also accept. It is not a matter of believing or disbelieving climate science; it is a matter of rigorous academic inquiry.

Now I would ask all teachers and teacher leaders to apply the same academic rigor to instructional practice. That is we must make our instructional decisions on what we know works - based on research.

Unfortunately as I have talked to teachers over the years about instructional practice, I have heard a lot of faith-based language.
  • "I don't believe in homework."
  • "I believe in phonics."
  • "I don't believe in teaching to the test."
  • "I believe in independent reading."
  • "I believe in using round robin and popcorn reading."
For about 2,000 years doctors "believed" that blood-letting was an effective treatment for a wide variety of ailments. Today, I would bet if you encountered a doctor who recommended blood-letting for your flu symptoms, you would run, not walk, out the office door screaming. Science, and mounting numbers of dead patients, caught up with blood-letting. So, as professionals, we need to hold ourselves to the same standards. We need to follow the science and stop talking about our beliefs and start talking about the scientific research behind our instructional decision making. 

Now I know applying the rules of scientific inquiry to education is more difficult and more elusive than the study of climate. Climate exists in the physical world, education in the human world. Working with the mind is messier than working with weather patterns. And yes, teaching is as much art as it is science. Still, decisions on instruction must be rooted in what we can show works. Unless we can show, through documentation of the research, that what we are doing does indeed work, we stand vulnerable to the charge of educational malpractice.

So, instead of saying, "I don't believe in giving homework", we need to make a statement like this. "Research has shown that homework has little or no impact on learning in the elementary grades, so I chose not to assign it to my third graders." This statement, by the way, is true. The most comprehensive research study on homework, conducted by Harris Cooper of Duke University, found just that. You can read my fuller discussion about homework here. The reason we continue to see elementary school children burdened with homework is because teachers "believe" in it, not because it has any academic value.

Often times, however, the science gives us conflicting messages and makes sticking to the science and what we know difficult. For example, we know through numerous studies that the more time children spend reading the better they get at reading. Teachers aware of this will work to make sure to provide time for engaged, independent reading in the classroom. But what if you would also like to have the students read at home? Is this homework? Will it be effective? We might decide to work with parents to provide a family time for reading at home. Our statement then is not, "I believe that reading in the home is important", but rather, "The research indicates that when children have access to reading material in the home, when reading is valued by the adults in the home, and when time is set aside for reading, children will improve their overall reading ability." We would then need to work with parents to make "family literacy" not homework, but a natural part of what happens in the home.

Teachers, though, must be skilled and skeptical consumers of research. Sometimes what is presented to us as research is really propaganda. It is always a good idea to follow the money when presented with "research" demonstrating that a program is effective. Ask the questions, Who stands to benefit financially from this research? What is this research trying to sell? Was this research published in a peer reviewed journal? If someone is citing you research to support a reading program she is selling, be very, very skeptical.

Sometimes the "research" is driven by a political agenda. A prime example of this was the National Reading Panel (NRP) that came out with the Reading First initiative under the George W. Bush administration. The leaders of NRP, including the chair, Reid Lyon, had a bias toward a systematic phonics approach to reading instruction, so that unsurprisingly, the final NRP report argued for the primacy of phonics in early literacy instruction. Eight years later, follow-up research found that indeed, thanks to Reading First, kids were better at phonics. Unfortunately, the same kids were no better at understanding what they read, which after all is what reading is about.

The NRP fell into the trap of valuing one type of research, what they called empirical, over other types of research including, especially, correlational and ethnographic that would have given them a fuller picture of effective practice. Phonics instruction, and other bits and pieces approaches to literacy tend to lend themselves to empirical study, while other effective practices, like independent reading, are more readily studied through correlational studies or ethnographies. While empirical studies are generally the "gold standard" in research, they are not the only standard and much can be learned from other rigorous types of research.

All this can leave the poor classroom teacher frustrated and confused. What to do if our goal is to truly use well-researched instructional strategies in our teaching? For me the answer lies in two places. First, what does the preponderance of reliable research evidence show to be effective practice? Second, what do I observe in my classroom, over-time and through documentation, seems to be working?

So when I read the following in a respected publication, an article written by respected researchers that "the research base supports the notion that the reading curriculum should incorporate time and opportunities for students to engage in independent reading" (Gambrell, et al, 2011), I am prone to include independent reading in my instructional practice. If  over-time in my classroom, the practice does not seem to be working, I need to take a close look at how I have implemented the practice, find out what successful programs are doing that I am not and make adjustments.

There may even be times when well-researched practices that have shown to be effective with other students prove to be ineffective with the students I am working with. When this happens, and when I have done all I can to be sure I am employing the practice as effectively as possible, I may have to drop a practice as not effective with this particular group of students (or possibly with this particular teacher).

The point is, finally, that as a professional educator, I must make decisions based on the preponderance of the science and in line with the evidence I see before me and keep reading and keep adjusting and keep employing my best professional judgement. That is the essence of being a professional. And that is something we can all believe in.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Questions as Invitations, Not Inquisitions

When you are a writer, inspiration for your writing can come from all over, suddenly, unpredictably, sometimes even against your will. Into my in box this past week came an email from the Academy of American Poets, with a collection a poems for the beginning of the school year. Most were familiar, including this one by the acclaimed American poet of the working man, Philip Levine. 

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School - Detroit 1942

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.
(from What Work Is, Knopf 1991)
What jumped out at me in this reading of the poem was the question the teacher asks: What have I done? 
What have I done? To me, this is an invitational question. The question invites speculation. The question invites a variety of possible answers. The question has no right or wrong answer. The question taps into each individual student's background knowledge, schema, conceptual understanding and for some apparently, mischievousness. The question invites talk.
As teachers we ask a lot of questions. Indeed questions may be the most important tool in the teacher's arsenal, but too often our questions are inquisitional, rather than invitational.
Inquisitional questions have right answers. They do not encourage speculation. They cut off talk. Literary theorist, Louise Rosenblatt, criticized these inquisitional questions in her seminal article, "What Facts Does This Poem Teach You.?" The title giving away what she viewed as the objectification of an art form through unenlightened questioning. 
Here are some inquisitional questions for the poem above:
What is the significance of the poem being set in early April?
How does the narrator characterize the student, Grace Bimmler?
What evidence does the narrator provide that he is not interested in what is happening in class?
I think it would be much better to approach this poem, and most reading material for that matter, with a liberal use of invitational questions. Here is a list to get you started. The first one is my favorite and one that was taught to me by my wife, Cynthia Mershon, a literacy teacher.

What stood out for you?
This question invites the reader to participate in a conversation with a fellow reader. You can't be wrong, because you are answering from your personal experience with the text. After this opening invitation, we might follow up with these questions:
Can you say more about that?
What makes you think that?
What does this get you thinking about?

Does that make sense to you?
What is another possible way of thinking about this?
How does what (another student) said square with your understanding?
In a world increasingly focused on the standardized test, it may seem counterintuitive to recommend these invitational questions as a way into reading comprehension. Doesn't the student need to be skilled at answering the inquisitional questions?
Well yes, but I would argue that the best way to help students develop their comprehension of a text is through first inviting them into the world of the text and then, through skillful follow-up questioning, helping them refine their understanding of the text. This is, after all, what all readers do when they read independently. In Rosenblatt's words it is that initial "lived through experience of the text" that provides the baseline for ongoing interpretation and understanding.
So as this school year begins, may I suggest that you redouble your efforts at refining your questioning techniques in such a way that will invite your students into the learning.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Teacher Tech Ambassadors: Engaged Professionals or Corporate Shills?

About 15 years ago, in my position as a curriculum director for a suburban school district, I worked with teachers, administrators and the Board of Education to introduce a new spelling program. The program was well researched and, we determined, would yield better results. The program would also require considerable rethinking and planning by all of our elementary teachers. One teacher, let's call her Lois, took the bull by the horns, and because she was a highly organized person who wanted to have this new program under control, she spent numerous hours laying out a year-long plan for using the new program. Lois shared it with me and I agreed it was excellent work.

"This is outstanding work, Lois", I said. "This will be helpful to all the teachers in the school district."

"Hold on there, Buster," she replied. "I did this work, and it was a lot of work, and I am not sharing it with anyone."

I was flabbergasted. The teaching profession has a long history of collegial sharing. For many years I had organized and/or participated in "teacher shares" where good ideas were spread around. As  a reading specialist, I always felt it was my obligation to share any knowledge I had or materials I developed for the good of all. The idea, I thought then, and I think now, was that no matter what we came up with, it was not about personal gain, it was about what would help children. The amount of teacher sharing that happens on social media sites like Pinterest would seem to indicate that this sharing is still a well-established expectation of the profession.

This blog is a way for me to continue that ideal. All teachers are free to use, or discard, my ideas free of charge and free of advertising. However, as I read in Sunday's New York Times, the monetization of public school teachers is reaching new heights with the incursion of Silicon Valley tech companies. Let's call them "Big Tech" since their business plan seems to be closely modeled on 'Big Pharma."

The article is titled, Silicon Valley Courts Brand Name Teachers, Raising Ethics IssuesThe reporter, Natasha Singer, tells the story of Kayla Drezel, a tech savvy third grade teacher, who has turned her classroom into a laboratory for educational technology and herself into a shill for various tech companies. She has negotiated a special contract giving her ten days off during the school year so that she can give speeches, attend tech company trainings and do workshops for teachers. She has an agreement with a clothing store to provide her with clothing in exchange for publicity for the store. As Ms. Drezel herself says, "It's like two full-time jobs."

I am sure it is. I also wonder what impact "two full-time jobs" has on Ms. Drezel's actual job  teaching third graders. But by all accounts, Ms. Drezel is a first-rate teachers, whose students love her and whose supervisors feel she has brought tech products and expertise to the school that they could not have possibly have afforded without her involvement and agreements with these tech companies.

What could be bad, eh?

Well, plenty. Public school teachers are public employees, not free agents. As such they are on very shaky ethical ground when they act as "ambassadors" for tech companies. Another word for ambassador would be consultant and as consultants for a private company they may come into conflict with their obligation to their employer, the school board. These positions certainly put the teacher in an ethical bind. Are teachers the servants of the parents and children or of the Big Tech companies? As former Attorney General of Maine, James E. Tierney, put it "Any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in a public classroom without transparency, then that's problematic."

And then, of course, their is the issue of the continued privatization of the public schools. Why, do you suppose Big Tech is so willing to provide perks and pay to teachers who do product placement and promotion for them in the schools? Is it possible that they are taking advantage of the fact that schools are chronically under-resourced and are happy to accept the apparent largesse of Big Tech to get the technology their budgets won't allow. And how big a jump is it from there to renaming good old Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary as Big Tech Elementary.

It is understandable that teachers and administrators want the best for their children. Letting the Big Tech wolf in the door is not the way to go about this. One question that no one seems to be asking Ms. Drezel and other tech "ambassadors" is this: While you tech ambassadors are raking in profits from your tech work for various tech companies, what are you paying your students for serving as educational technology lab rats?
Here is what I think Ms. Drezel and others like her should do. Investigate a technology that will benefit her students. To begin with this is problematic since technological innovations have shown little impact on learning, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt. Write a grant that allows her to bring the technological innovation into her classroom. The grant would be exclusively for materials and equipment and training, not for personal income. Conduct an action research project to show the effectiveness or lack thereof of the technological intervention. Write a report and share with the administration and school board. If the technology is shown to be effective, seek funding through the regular budgetary process and then share with colleagues and assist them in using the tech in the classroom.

That is how professional teachers go about things. They investigate, they learn, they try out, and they share. The gains are personal, professional, systemic and intrinsic, not monetary.