Monday, July 07, 2014

"Why Don't Students Like School?" Implications for Practice #2

"It would be a shame indeed if we did not use the accumulated wisdom of science to inform the methods by which we educate children.
--Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don't Students Like School?

Last week I analyzed the first half of Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School, and now I'm ready to share implications for my practice from the second half of the book. Willingham challenges our practice and beliefs with cognitive science study and research. I found a number of facts, suggestions, and ideas that will impact my practice in the year to come.

Practice is essential as practice focuses effort on learning and creates automaticity which saves room in the limited working memory. Practice of basic skills can be embedded into more advanced learning experiences, and practice can be more interesting if it is done in a large variety of ways. Intellect is malleable, and effective effort pays off with regard to increasing intelligence. With this in mind, I will more carefully focus on the essential skills I want students to master, and look for a large number of ways to foster students' practice in those areas both in school and at home. Also, I'll create interim, concrete, explicit goals for accomplishment and assessment with regard to achieving those skills in order to make mastery more accessible, manageable, and approachable to students.

Expert vs. Novice
I will bring the distinction between how an expert learns versus how a novice learns to the classroom. First, I'll explicitly define the difference for students letting them know that experts typically spend ten years mastering the knowledge, concept, and skill of their expertise, and because of that, experts' brains are able to organize, synthesize, and assimilate knowledge differently than novices. I will emphasize that the novice has to learn how to learn by persevering, choosing apt learning paths, developing substantial background knowledge, applying optimal study skills, believing in their ability to learn, and learning about and applying the strategies and knowledge evidenced in the lives and work of experts. In this regard, I will boost explicit teaching, carefully design open exploration efforts, and find multiple ways to strengthen students' background knowledge. I will enlist family support by sharing this information and working with them to coach their children in this regard.

Teaching Challenged Learners
I will work extra hard to make sure that students who are behind and are more challenged with learning understand well what they can do to increase their skill, concept, and knowledge. In that regard, I will scaffold tasks with greater effort, and encourage students to utilize a growth mindset by choosing challenging tasks, applying strategy and effort, and working extra hard to catch up. I will relay to them that cognitive (brain) science supports these efforts. As for advanced students, I will look for opportunities to challenge them as well so that they have to work hard to gain new knowledge and develop their intelligence. To keep it interesting, I'll choreograph the learning day with frequent changes in modality, pacing, focus, and structure thus giving every child a chance to start fresh and refocus his/her mental energies regularly. Most importantly, I will use praise, modeling, and other efforts to let students know that hard work is what intelligent students do.

I will make a praise chart to lead my own use of praise. Too often I fall into the trap of saying, "You're so smart" or "Wow, you're really good at that!"  Instead, as Willingham suggests, I'll focus on praising the effort over the ability with statements like these:
  • Your hard work paid off. I noticed that you spent hours persevering on this task, and look at what you accomplished?
  • You made a terrific learning choice by both reading the article and then watching a video about the topic. That helped you to develop substantial background knowledge which led you to doing well on the test.
  • I noticed that you and your friend collaborated. The fact that you worked together and talked a lot about the unit vocabulary definitely helped you learn and apply all the words. 
  • You did a great job breaking down the task into manageable pieces. I noticed that you learned one section well before you moved onto the next section. No wonder you met all the expectations with strength.
  • You were the only one that emailed me for clarification. The fact that you were willing to ask questions to forward your learning really paid off as you were able to recount the information with such ease and strength. That really shows you're a successful learner. 
Developing My Craft
Willingham states, "Teaching, like any cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved." He encourages educators to apply cognitive science study and research to their own work as well. First, he recommends that we seek out feedback. That's a challenge in schools since optimal feedback loops depend on knowledge, experience, trust, time, and shared goals. One way to do this in our current culture would be to set up collaborative groups of educators from multiple schools from a variety of systems. Another way is to create trusting circles of educators within your school. With this model, educators might meet once a month or so to come up with a focus and then visit each other's classrooms to safely critique and provide feedback.

Willingham also recommends the use of videotaping your lessons to improve your craft. I've had experience with this as part of the NBPT process, and the biggest challenge was the time to set up and organize the videotaping process since life in schools change by the minute and there's little prep time. I did find though that I learned a lot by watching the videotape, and it did help me to improve as an educator. 

In addition, Willingham states that pedagogical knowledge, procedural skill, and subject area knowledge are all important aspects of teaching well.  Further, he notes that you must practice to become a better teacher, and practice means you work towards getting better with conscious efforts to improve, gain feedback, and undertake activities for the sake of improvement. He encourages educators to keep teaching diaries which could be a blog, website, notebook, or even audio notes. The reason I continue to blog so much is because the reflection and writing has dramatically improved my ability to teach well, hence the gains far outweigh some of the challenges. So, as you might guess, I support this idea because I know reflection matters with regard to improving your craft as an educator.

Far Reaching Implications for Schools and Educators
As noted in countless recent articles including this post by Linda Darling-Hammond teaching is a profession long ignored with regard to the time, attention, and respect needed to move our work forward. For too long, teaching has been looked at as a job rather than a profession and too many see the teacher as vessel for information transfer rather than a professional who develops the cognitive skills necessary to choreograph the day with multiple research based, responsive activities, experiences, and events to teach every child well with strength and success. 

Though Willingham references the studies which demonstrate that a teacher's effect plateaus about year ten, I believe that recent changes with regard to information access and share, revised school structures, new evaluation systems, and the National emphasis on teacher leaders will change those statistics. Old time structures did not promote dynamic professional growth for educators. In fact, it's my guess that old time, factory model structures in schools probably impeded growth and potential. Today there's hope that new structures, role definitions, leadership models, and evaluation systems will raise the profession to where it should be with regard to creating conditions for excellence and respect.

Willingham's persistent focus on the importance of background knowledge has implications for all community organizations including schools. I wonder how much of the achievement gap is due to the need for greater background knowledge. In what ways can every community organization help to increase the background knowledge of the children they serve? How can we assess background knowledge early on and develop ways to bridge the gap? With this in mind, we must work with care to embed standards into meaningful units of study that provide children with substantial background knowledge--background knowledge gained through multiple learning experiences including hands-on work, reading, video, field studies, home-school endeavor, project work and more.

Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School?, is an important read for every educator, parent, and leader. It's a book that will help you to help your children succeed in school.

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Why Don't Students Like School Part One Notes