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The Unwelcome Silent Curriculum

We have all heard about the "silent curriculum". The curriculum we want to teach, but for which standards do not exist. This curriculum usually revolves around respect, responsibility, caring and character development. I want to take a few minutes and reflect on what else is oftentimes taught implicitly by many teachers (including yours truly, although I am working on it). Let me be clear, these are things that are often taught implicitly in schools, even though most of us would be against them. I hope this post causes you to reflect on your own practices and what implicit messages you send your students.

1) Understanding quickly is more important than understanding deeply. Many teachers quiz students on their understanding along the path of learning and assess homework for understanding. These assessments are often entered as static fixtures of students' overall grades. Yet, isn't the purpose of homework to encourage or assist learning? Isn't a quiz given half way through a unit designed to inform both the teacher and the student of learning progress? We admit these are road markers toward an end goal, but then we treat them as final destinations. Perhaps we need to put fewer marks in the grade book and send the message to students that learning is a process and you will not be penalized if you do not understand quickly.

2) Completing work is more important than learning. How many of our students fail our courses because they do not turn in their homework? Or, perhaps even worse, how many students are getting A's just because they complete all the work or do a crap ton (that is bigger than a metric ton) of extra credit. I was always told an A was for achieving at exceptional levels, I just didn't realize "exceptional" meant "get your work in on time".

3) Learning = Memorizing. Yes, there are some things students must remember, but the periodic table? A classification scheme? I would rather have students be able to USE these things than have them memorized.

4) Learning is supposed to be fun. Yes, we want to engage kids, but if we focus on entertaining students, we lead them to believe that learning is fun. I want my students to realize that learning is rewarding, but that it is also hard work. Hard work worth doing.

That is all for now. I am sure I'll post some more parts to the "unwelcome silent curriculum" at some future date. I hope these have given you some food for thought.

Post some of your insights about negative implicit messages in the comments.

Promoting Critical Reading

Reading is an important skill. Yet, many students tend to read only to "get done". Oftentimes, we require the students to take notes when reading, but just writing down what the reading says is not the same as really thinking about what the reading is saying. Today, my classes discussed and practiced how we can get ourselves to think more critically about our reading. Forcing ourselves to think when reading can be difficult, but we can encourage the thinking by asking ourselves questions like:

-"what do I disagree with?"
-"What has the writer left out?"
-"What needs to be more clear?"
-"How does this information fit with what I already have thought".

Today, the students tried to write out some of the thinking they were doing while reading a passage out of our textbook. The writing process forces them to slow down and think, but also provides me (the teacher) with something I can look at and assess their level of mental engagement and their level of understanding. As students read and wrote, I was reading some of their writing and providing immediate feedback. I believe that if i want students to gain in their writing/thinking abilities, I must be there to provide support and guidance. Simply assigning this activity as homework would not have been as productive. We as the teacher must encourage students to reach higher levels.

As a parting note, I leave you with the rationale I give students for taking their writing seriously. "Writing our thinking is difficult, but by working to make our writing clear, we work to make our thinking clear."

Grading: the objective myth

Objectivity as an ideal when assessing students must die. I do not mean we should abandon our goal to accurately asses what our students know, but we must admit that we can NOT be objective. Some believe that having tests with "right" answers leads to greater objectivity. Unfortunately, the very fact that someone made the decision to include THOSE questions makes the test creation a biased act and therefore the assessment is biased (subjective). Sometimes the language with which these kinds of tests (ie: multiple choice) are written is biased. Some students do not understand nuances of language that may be necessary to correctly interpret questions. Furthermore, these kinds of tests could just be assessing a student's ability to take a test (ie: their ability to eliminate answers, or look for context clues within the question itself). While this may be a worthwhile skill (it has served me well, but also dis-served me as well). I don't know many teachers who would argue that "being able to take a test" is the goal of education.

I suggest we admit that our assessments are merely a judgement. Our judgement of students' understanding and effort as measured by OUR measuring sticks not THE measuring sticks. I believe that once we admit the subjective nature of assessment, we will be free to work towards more authentic and hopefully accurate assessment means.

We all want our students to understand rather than memorize; to apply rather than repeat. Yet, some of us are stuck in an ideology of objectivity that never really existed in the first place. Give yourself permission to use a student's free writing on a topic to judge how well they understand the concept. Give yourself permission to assign a grade based on students' cumulative work and maybe even give yourself permission to not have a "test". Removing the objectivity myth may be the first step to better assessment and better learning in our classrooms.

Turning our boxes into trampolines.

I was reading a book by one of my favorite authors, Rob Bell. His most recent work, "Drops like Stars", takes on the role suffering plays in creativity. Bell notes that our most creative moments are when our traditional options are no longer viable. When we have no other way out, we are forced to invent new ways out.

A part of this book talks about how creativity is often called "thinking outside the box". However, Bell notes that thinking outside the box is limited because there is still a box. He argues the most creative individuals are those whose attitude is, "Wait, there's a box?" He then goes on to note that our most creative moments are when our boxes get smashed. Sometimes having our boxes smashed puts us in a necessary position that we would not have put ourselves.

This is how I see the standards & NCLB movements in education. In large part, I do not agree with many of the standards, or the high-stakes testing, but I was not happy with the current state of education. What the federal government has done is to smash our boxes (something I think was necessary). Now the question must turn to what kind of box we will build for ourselves out of the rubble. Perhaps it shouldn't be a box. To pull a metaphor from another of Bell's works (Velvet Elvis), perhaps we should build ourselves a trampoline - trampolines are inviting and encourage reaching new heights, boxes are closed off and inflexible.

Which of your boxes do you need to smash? What kind of trampoline are you building?

Learning student names

I remember when I was student teaching I worked hard to learn the names of the students with whom I was working. Early in the semester (before I had taken over the classes) I called several students by name during some lab work and they were shocked. They commented that their teacher didn't even know their names (and this was second semester!). From watching that teacher's interactions with their students, I could tell that their was little relationship development effort being expended and the students' attitudes reflected it. I decided then and there that one of my main goals would be to develop meaningful relationships with my students - something that I think has greatly impacted my ability to manage my classes.

Perhaps the most basic step toward relationship development is learning students names. Learning their names quickly demonstrates desire to know the students and that you see them as individuals rather than cogs in a wheel. Yet, with 150 new names to learn each year, learning the names quickly can be daunting. Furthermore, I teach in a very diverse district and many of the names are new to me, have unfamiliar origins and are difficult for me to pronounce.

This year during the first day of school (today), I took out my flip video camera and as the students filled out the first day information sheet (further demonstrating my desire to know them as individuals) I went around to each student and had them say their name into the camera. With all of my sections and all of my students, the resulting video is about 7 minutes long. I can watch the video several times over the next few days and be able to match names with faces rather than just names with locations on a seating chart. Additionally, I emailed the video to the other teachers on my team so we can all be able to recognize students in the hallway and in our classes sooner rather than later.

I hope you all work to know your students as individuals and know that the extra effort you make to develop relationships with your students will reap great rewards in the form of improved student learning, classroom management, and greater participation!

Please share further strategies you use to develop meaningful relationships with your students in the comments!

Concerning Online Education

This is taken from an email I wrote to a friend of mine:

I am very nervous about what will happen to education in the future. Online schools are cheaper and allow students to progress at their own pace, but they do not build relationships, improve social skills, or react flexibly/instantaneously/creatively to student struggles. Furthermore, the fact that online courses are so popular is an indictment of current schooling norms – if teachers are just information distribution centers (ie: lecture and powerpoint) then online info distribution replaces them easily and effectively. However, if teachers are actively pushing student thinking, forcing them to explain, questioning their decisions, providing real world situations and scaffolding student learning, then the online version cannot replace teachers. Unfortunately, most teachers are fact oriented rather than critical thinking oriented.

My fear is that education is too far gone from the goal of creating critical thinkers and so entrenched in a system of hoop jumping (memorize, regurgitate, repeat) that modifying those hoops for a digital world makes sense – it is cheaper and faster. Many people will say online systems can react (but usually that reaction is simply providing an easier or more difficult fact based question). A machine cannot assess true creativity/ingenuity. Others might argue that message boards or social media can allow for teacher-student interaction. True, but the economic push will be to have one teacher for several hundred students, making it impossible for anything but “hoop jumping”. Not to mention that a lack of true relationship will hinder any teachers ability to meet ALL of their students learning needs. We need to be aware of where we are going. The decisions educators make now will have drastic effects on the cultures of tomorrow. Instead of looking to technology for salvation, perhaps we ought to be asking what we have done wrong in the past that makes online education now so enticing...and what can we do to ensure the "teacher" remains a critical part of education.

I want to be clear, I am NOT anti-technology, but I AM anti-hoop jumping the curriculum.

Student-Centered Teaching

Teacher behavior and patterns play a crucial role in the attitude students have, and what kind of environment exists in the classroom. Teachers need to provide a safe, stimulating, accepting environment; have high expectations of self and students; be a model of active inquiry; get students to question; get students to apply knowledge; view the world as a classroom; be flexible; put in extra time; and make a difference (Pennick and Bonnstetter, 1993). What a teacher does in the classroom is the difference between students passively sitting in class, and students who are actively trying to make meaning from what they learn in a class.

A classroom where a teacher is promoting the learning environment described above would have students actively engaged in conversation about content. Students would perceive to have control of the classroom discussion in that their ideas would help the teacher decide where to go next. Learning would be guided rather than forced. Students would take initiative to look for information in appropriate resources. All ideas would be accepted and looked at equally by students and teachers. Discussions would be based on information available or ways to get support for ideas. Students and teacher would appear to be equals in the learning process, but the teacher has the difficult task of facilitating student learning and providing bits of information where necessary and appropriate.

The classroom environment described above is considered a student-centered classroom. This varies from the traditional teacher-centered classroom because the teacher is not the all knowing answer bank/lecturer. Instead, the teacher acts as facilitator for students to come to a deeper understanding through evaluation of various ideas and evidence. According to Penick and Shymansky (1981), classes that are student-centered showed greater than 90% on-task time even though students are given much freedom in contrast to purely teacher-centered classrooms in which teacher dependency developed in students. Without the teacher holding students hands, the students were unable to stay on task. (We are always teaching kids something – sometimes we teach them to rely on us too much)

The question arises as to how a teacher can encourage the previously mentioned student-centered environment? First off, to stimulate an intellectual environment the teacher should have resources available for students such as articles, journals, texts, equipment, online access, etc (Penick and Bonnstetter, 1993). Also, teachers should ask questions that require student thought. Yes/no questions should be avoided as well as simple short-answer questions. These types of question require little thought on the part of students and do not lead to further discussion by the class. Too many times I hear teachers ask students “questions” that are really just fill in the blank sentences. This promotes no higher level of thinking than the simple “hunt and find the bold word” worksheets teachers handout for homework. Instead of simple one word questions, thought provoking questions or questions that need extended answers should be asked. If students do try to respond briefly, the teacher should ask the student to clarify or elaborate (Schlitt and Abraham). Teachers should ask questions such as: “how does a scientist know they have come to the right answer?” A student may respond by saying, “he convinces other scientists”. While this response is on the right track, the teacher can elicit more information by asking a follow-up question such as: “how does he convince other scientists?” This question should be posed to the class so that one student is not singled out, and multiple ideas are shared.

Use of questioning strategies helps the teacher guide the student from just a typical response to a more in depth answer that relates the response to previous experience, helps the student apply the concepts, make predictions, and explain their reasoning. Students should be made aware of this strategy as it can help them develop more logical thought processes explicitly, without the aid of the teacher. By asking better questions, students are able to make better connections, and deepen their understanding of the material. Teachers also gain a deeper insight into student understanding. Yes/no questions give students a 50% chance at the right answer regardless of their understanding, whereas extended answer questions get students explaining their ideas completely. From these explanations, teachers can see what pieces of knowledge students are missing or misusing; providing valuable information to help with teacher decision-making.

In my next post, I will address what else (besides effective questions) is necessary to achieve the learning and student-centered environment described above. Importantly, just asking a good question is NOT enough to get your students fully engaged.

Goals for Students

As we plan for the upcoming school year, considering our goals is an important first step. So what is it that we want students to gain from a k-12 science education? What are the goals we should constantly work to promote in students?

Considering that rote memorization of scientific ideas leads to little understanding, I have identified ten goals for students that focus on life learning skills, and other traits that will be valuable to them in the future, no matter their career choice. Each goal below is accompanied by more specific explanations of what I might see students doing who meet that goal. I hope whatever your goals are for your students, you have thought about them extensively. We all want great things for our students, but if we do not have well articulated goals, our efforts will not be focused. I will post later on how we can consistently work to promote the goals below.

Student Goal 1) Students will demonstrate critical thinking.
A student who demonstrates critical thinking will defend their viewpoint using relevant evidence. Students will pose questions when new information does not agree with their current understanding, and look for further sources of evidence to support the new idea if necessary. Students will not accept blindly new information and be willing to question teachers, texts and other sources of information. A student who is capable of critical thinking should be able to solve problems in a stepwise sequence, and be able to revise the sequence if necessary.

Student Goal 2) Students will demonstrate a deep understanding of content and be able to apply this knowledge to problems in and out of the classroom.
Students with a deep understanding of the content will be able to clearly articulate that understanding by citing relevant evidence and sources when confronted with a question. Students will be able to make connections between various concepts and apply multiple concepts to a single problem when needed. Students will be aware of resources to find information regarding content, and use such resources when necessary. Students will use their knowledge of content when approaching a relevant problem and will be able to recognize which concepts are of value for specific situations.

Student Goal 3) Students will demonstrate creativity and curiosity.
Students who are creative will propose original ways to approach or solve problems. Students will ask thought-provoking questions during class discussion, and try to answer questions by piecing together previous knowledge. Students who are curious will come up with possible investigations and ask questions seeking explanation of ideas during class discussions. Students will develop their own ways to explain their ideas and look for evidence that supports their ideas.

Student Goal 4) Students will demonstrate respect.
Students will not interrupt others during discussions. Students will listen to other ideas and treat them as valid. Students will discuss positive aspects of ideas they do not necessarily agree with; this helps them to understand both sides of an issue, and makes them a better critical thinker. Students will follow classroom rules, and treat school property as though it were their own. Work area will be kept clean and students will remind each other of classroom rules. Each student will work cohesively with a team and treat themselves as part of that team.

Student Goal 5) Students will be responsible and conscientious members of communities.
Students will address global problems concerning the environment, energy needs, human needs, social concerns and others. Students will seek out remedies to such problems and debate which ideas offer the most effective solutions. Students will propose possible measures to be taken as citizens when a problem is found.

Student Goal 6) Students will exhibit confidence.
Students who exhibit confidence will be willing to participate in class, and willing to provide ideas, even if they are unsure of the idea’s worth. These students will be willing to try new procedures and willing to try again when they fail. Students will ask the teacher to clarify when they do not fully understand, and be willing to look for additional help if needed.

Student Goal 7) Students will set goals and assess their own learning and progress.
Students will set realistic goals for the semester, quarter, unit, and week. As weeks go by, students will become better at setting goals they are capable of achieving. Students will revise goals as needed. Students will use a journal to track their progress and to assess their own understanding. Students will seek ways to express their learning and check for understanding of new concepts.

Student Goal 8 ) Students will be active in their own learning.
Students will look for further resources when they feel they do not yet fully understand. Students will ask questions in class to clarify points of confusion. Students will create models to explain their ideas. Active learners will look into topics of interest beyond the classroom. Students will bring concerns about understanding to class discussions, and also cite how current material applies elsewhere, besides the classroom.

Student Goal 9) Students will use communication and cooperation skills effectively.
Students will be able to communicate clearly in large groups as well as one on one. Students will be able to communicate ideas succinctly through written language. Students will use correct terminology where appropriate. Students will use correct grammar and punctuation. Students will listen to other ideas and maintain eye contact during conversation and debates, and will speak in a respectful manner during such debates and discussions. Students who are able to cooperate are willing to let others do their fair share as well as pull their own weight in a group. Students will value all suggestions of group members equally. Students will attempt to resolve problems within their group before asking the teacher.

Student Goal 10) Students will understand the nature of knowledge.
Students will partake in discussions about the nature of knowledge and compare different ways of knowing. Students will apply principles of the nature of knowledge to different content areas. Epistemological discussions with students can help them become more reflective concerning their own thinking. By reflecting on what it means to know something in diverse areas, students will better understand how to learn effectively.

I hope these goals are lofty, children deserve no less than our highest expectations. Assessing these goals is difficult, but by carefully designing lessons and providing important experiences for students, we can promote these goals – however, like with anything, they must carry the goals to fruition. I’m sure some will tell me I’m an idealist with a goal list like that, so I leave you with some John Lennon’s Imagine:

You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.