Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The gift of a cardboard box

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article this morning from Sue Shellenbarger about what makes kids creative. According to Kyung Hee Kim, an assistant professor of educational psychiatry at the College of William and Mary, American kids' scores on a commonly used creativity test fell steadily from 1990 to 2008. (An example of a question on such a test: A child sees 6 boxes arranged to look like a T. She is asked to list all the things this figure could represent. A common idea would be "the letter T." A less common idea might be "stones in an anti-gravity statue!")

Of course, some folks are quick to point to the increased use of standardized tests, and (the story goes) rote learning as crowding out time for creativity. But I think it's not just what we do in school that discourages creativity. Every Christmas as I'm shopping for toys, I'm struck by how mindless many toys have become. Selling Legos or Lincoln Logs in sets produces higher margins than just selling them as buckets of blocks, so that's what companies do. We buy toys that are associated with characters in TV shows, which then provide ready story lines for children. Will Cinderella turn into a pioneer woman who builds a hut out of Star Wars Lego sets? Let's hope so. But not hold our breath.

But it's not just the toys. It's also the amount of time children spend watching TV and playing video games. Games can encourage creativity -- sometimes. But they don't leave as much to the imagination as a book.

I'm not sure what's to be done about that. We're trying to limit our kids' exposure to video games and TV, and encourage coloring and building with blocks (and cardboard boxes) and the like. I'm curious what other readers of this blog do to nurture their children's creativity.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What makes a good teacher? Ask the kids

The Gates Foundation has been undertaking a multi-year study of teacher effectiveness, trying to learn why some teachers' students excel and others don't. How can you evaluate teachers? Should you just look at test scores?

Preliminary findings from the Gates study suggest that there may be one underused approach: ask the students (as highlighted in this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article).

The Gates study had students watch teachers explaining various concepts. The students were asked about the teachers' effectiveness, and were also tested.

It turns out that, as Justice Potter Stewart once said of obscenity, students know effective teaching when they see it. The study also found that a teacher's past success in raising student achievement on state tests is the best predictor of doing so in the future, and that the teachers who demonstrate the best value-added scores on state tests are rated as most effective by students in explaining concepts.

It's a fascinating finding, and suggests that the so-called 360 degree feedback model, in which a person is evaluated by everyone he or she works with, could have some merit in education too. In general, teachers are mostly evaluated by principals, but this suggests that student feedback on effectiveness can also be meaningful.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The opposite of red-shirting

For the past few years, it's become quite popular to "red-shirt" kindergartners, especially boys. The idea is that if kids start school a little later, they'll be academically more advanced and do better (and kids who are bigger and more coordinated will do better athletically). In some cases, this may be true. School districts have been quite open to following parental directive on this front.

They have been less open, however, to going the other way, and letting a child start kindergarten early. I'm not quite sure why, but even children who just miss the fall cut-off and can demonstrate, say, an ability to read at a much higher grade level, encounter an uphill battle getting an exception.

So I'm glad to see that Colorado is at least creating a pathway for parents to request an early acceleration. According to this article in the Canon City Daily Record, parents can request testing, get a recommendation from a preschool teacher and make their case. The school district is quick to point out that only children scoring in the 98th percentile or higher should do this, but at least they are acknowledging that in some cases it's a good idea!

Obviously, in some cases it isn't too. Many gifted children rather enjoy preschool because it tends to be more flexible, and less about everyone in the class doing the same thing at the same time. But starting kindergarten early is one of the best ways to do acceleration, because it gets it out of the way early, and then (barring the need for more acceleration... which, of course, can happens with PG kids!) children can keep going along with the same cohort.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"Inching in the right direction"

That's the verdict from the National Center for Education Statistics on the US results on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Every three years, countries around the world have thousands of 15-year-olds participate in this internationally benchmarked exam. The idea is to see how students stack up on an international basis.

As usual, the US is not exactly on top of the heap. 15-year-olds boosted their scores in science, coming in right at the middle of OECD countries, while in math, US students score a bit lower. (In reading, the US is above average for OECD countries, so that is good).

What's interesting to me is that our mediocre scores are not the result of having a heterogeneous population, including many English language learners. A McKinsey study that came out a little over a year ago found that the top 10% of US scorers on the PISA don't stack up well against the top 10% in other countries either. One thing we do stack up well on? We spend a lot per pupil. For years, America has been focused on inputs (funding, small class sizes, etc.) rather than outputs, and these international comparisons always show it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Teach Like a Champion... and issues even champions face

After many positive recommendations, I finally downloaded Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion to my Kindle, and I've been rather enjoying it. Lemov, the managing director of Uncommon Schools, has spent quite a bit of time video-taping excellent teachers. He defines excellent teachers as those whose at-risk students outperform more privileged ones. He studies the tapes like a football coach, and has honed their craft down into 49 replicable techniques. As he points out, it's one thing to say that teachers should have high expectations for their students. It's another to figure out what that looks like at 8:30AM on Monday.

The techniques are not rocket science, but are also dazzling when you think about them. For instance, he advocates cold-calling on students. All well and good. But how do you cold call? Effective teachers ask the question first, then call a student's name ("What is 8 times 3? [Pause] James?"). If you call a student's name first and then ask the question, only the student in question does the work in his head. If you ask the question first, then call on someone, all of the students do the work in anticipation of being asked for the answer. This is a little thing, but makes a massive difference in class engagement. Another important technique is "Right is right." When teachers ask classes a question, they often reward a partially right answer by "rounding up." That is, they supply extra information that the student didn't give. Why not say, "I like where you're going with that," and then ask the student to elaborate? Near and dear to my heart, he also chides teachers for engaging in the whole debate of whether slang is a cultural difference that should be celebrated. Proper English, he says, is the "language of opportunity." Kids can speak how they want at home. At school, they should be trained in speaking in a way that will open doors for employment and college.

You can certainly see how a teacher employing Lemov's techniques would have complete control of a class and be able to guide students toward discovering and mastering concepts. However, as I'm reading the book, I can't help but think that all of these techniques work wonderfully when the students are all working at close to the same level. Lemov advocates checking for mastery among kids of all abilities to see how it's going, and he suggests differentiating by cold-calling on your advanced students with harder questions, and having bonus questions ready for people who can master work after three examples rather than ten. But what if the kid already knows the material at the beginning of class? Circling back until 80% of the class has mastered something is incredibly frustrating for the kid who doesn't need half an hour to learn how to round to a certain decimal spot. Sometimes, gifted kids cope by tuning out and studying something else in their desk -- reading a book for example. But most of Lemov's techniques are designed to stop kids from opting out. This makes perfect sense for kids who are defiant or struggling. But not for those who mastered the material long ago.

This is why schools need homogeneous grouping (or "readiness grouping" as we call it here). Such grouping best leverages the talents of great teachers by making sure they can push everyone in a class and not spend a disproportionate amount of time on people who need more help. It also makes life easier on teachers who may still be learning how to teach effectively. Even champions are going to struggle with a class that encompasses 5 or more different grade levels.