The Multicultural School and World Events

A truly inclusive school community feels the effects of national and international events and engages them with active dialogue. In response to Ferguson, we quickly pulled together open discussion forums for students, faculty, and staff to share their thoughts and questions. A few days later, our trained student facilitators led community conversations, with all high school students required to attend. Middle school advisories broached the subject in a more introductory manner.

Our Pakistani exchange student asked for the school’s help in sharing and processing the massacre that took place at another school there. Within the hour, we adjusted our schedule and held an assembly so that she could share her thoughts. This act made it clear how even such a distant event can quite directly affect our community.

When the AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore crashed, I immediately thought of one colleague, who is Indonesian and was in Surabaya just days before. While she did not know anyone on the flight, the event was still a major shock. Our school team was primed to provide support and explanation should that prove necessary.

Our school has connections to the entire world, despite our moderate size. As our cities become more multicultural, our schools become more diverse, particularly when the school takes deliberate steps toward cultural competency. Our schools move beyond just inclusivity when we treat all students and staff as full members of the community and invite them to share their full selves, even if this sometimes causes discomfort or disagreement. These three stories are from just the past month, and events like this take place many times each year.

Courageous cultural competency is now a required quality of contemporary schools, to meet the goal of educating students for an increasingly globalized world.

Book Review: Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice

inside the black boxHere is a very brief review of Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education. I so appreciate that Larry Cuban continues to publish productively on the history of education and school change. Through his blog, book forwards, and latest book, Cuban explores the most confounding quality of school reform: the more policymakers change, the more classroom practice stays the same. Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice summarizes Cuban’s past work comparing national education policy to his direct observations of classroom practice. In this way, Cuban explodes myths about the effects of federal and state education initiatives on the student experience in schools. Cuban also spends a chapter exploring parallels to the evolution of the training and evaluation of medical practice.

Central to the argument is the idea of the multi-layered curriculum. Federal education policy is interpreted by states. State education standards are interpreted by districts. District initiatives are monitored by schools. Teachers interpret the curriculum as they teach. Students interpret the curriculum that they receive. Finally, assessments reveal only a partial picture of what students have actually learned. Cuban explains that these many layers have so diluted the original intent of education policy that classroom practice has remained fairly immune to change over decades. He also points out that much national and state education policy has been alarmingly simply in its theory of school change, for example that school accountability to student test scores would necessarily cause improvement in teaching practice, or that adding thousands of computing devices would necessarily improve student learning.

Education is not just complicated, however. It is complex. Cuban explains that complex systems involve humans making varying decisions and lack central command. Interdependencies and interactions exist among many different actors, often with conflicting objectives and methods. Top-down directives and simplified change theories fail to cause actual change in complex systems. Rather, Cuban argues, education policymakers would do better to empower and support teachers as professionals, change agents, and experts. School reform must address all layers of the multi-layered curriculum in order to have any chance of causing actual change on the ground.

Ironically, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice does not get very far into the classroom beyond confirming that it remains little affected by decades of large scale education reform. Other books and studies help complete the inquiry. For example, David Perkins and Project Zero studied classrooms in depth to determine when moments of understanding were achieved and created a model for effective classroom instruction based on that. Jack Schneider examined four changes to education practice that did in fact take root in the classroom and identified key factors in penetrating the black box of classroom practice. Together, these studies help identify key aspects of each layer that affects classroom practice and ultimately may help educators navigate the complex, shifting worlds of education policy.

This iPad case can do anything.

One case with four modes maximizes the ability of the iPad to act as both laptop and mobile tablet while also protecting the corners. Unfortunately, the case is also too tight and may stress the glass screen. Love the form factor, however. Supernight 360

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Teaching for Understanding

This article describes University Prep’s emphasis on teaching for understanding, a focus of our professional development program this year. I wrote it for the University Prep community, to be published in the winter issue of Happenings, the school magazine.

Raise your hand if you are against understanding. Anyone? It seems obvious that understanding should be the goal of education. However, during its history, American education has assigned greater importance to knowledge and procedure than to analysis, insight, and application. Schools have generally expected students to memorize great volumes of detailed facts and practice formulaic solutions to stock problems. The nation’s recent emphasis on standardized testing, to measure both student progress and teacher quality, has further narrowed this emphasis.

20 years ago, one of my teaching colleagues epitomized the traditional teaching method. He lectured from a sheaf of handwritten notes, yellowed from years gone by and marked with tiny refinements. His students listened closely and transcribed furiously, then pored over these notes in preparation for detailed tests. Thinking was not required, since the teacher told the students everything he expected them to know. Understanding was far from guaranteed, as students had few opportunities to draw their own conclusions and receive feedback. Yet, this teacher was considered one of the best of the faculty, a master of the craft.

Since the advent of the information age, both teachers and students have gained access to more knowledge than one can consume in a lifetime of study. Computers have gradually automated most of the procedural tasks that we used to complete manually. Has computing therefore reduced the importance of thinking and understanding? Not at all! Now that practically anyone can find and share great volumes of facts and execute procedures, our students must develop sophisticated thinking skills and gain understanding. Critical analysis, persuasive speaking, cultural competency, logical and sequential reasoning, and other thinking skills are now necessary in order to successfully distinguish evidence from opinion, appreciate different arguments and perspectives, and use technology to further human society.

As public schools have gradually ceded control of their educational programs to state and national mandates, independent schools have continued to develop student thinking and understanding. Teachers have selected the topics that best serve students. Students, working in small classes, have shared their ideas and received feedback. Multiple ways of thinking, such as the arts, languages, and physical education, have remained integral to the academic program. Rich co-curricular subjects, including outdoor education, global programs, social justice, community service, information studies, academic technology, and learning support, have broadened students’ understandings.

Great lessons start with great questions. How has the past influenced the present? How can we tell whether two variables are associated? How will we provide energy for future generations? What are the rights and responsibilities of a citizen? On September 25, the full faculty completed a workshop on essential questions, ideas that encourage thinking because they are open-ended, house multiple perspectives, and reflect current topics in the discipline. Leading research and professional organizations have informed this work, including the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Coalition of Essential Schools, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The book Making Learning Whole, by David Perkins, is a good place to start if you want to learn more about essential questions and authentic education.

High-quality classrooms encourage students to think. This is harder to accomplish than you might think! In one large project, researchers from Harvard’s Project Zero studied hundreds of classes and identified the moments during which learning happened and understanding was achieved. Based on this research, they then developed “thinking routines,” questions and activities that encourage student thinking and make it visible to the teacher. “See, Think, Wonder” encourages students to generate questions about a topic. “Think, Puzzle, Explore” asks students to identify dilemmas and enter them through stories. “Slow Looking” plumbs the depths of an image for its most revealing clues. “The Language of Thinking” asks teachers to use better words than “think” to encourage specific kinds of intellectual activity.

On October 10, four U Prep faculty and staff members traveled to a conference titled, “Making, Thinking, Understanding.” The Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education (CASIE) offered the conference. Our colleagues learned about some 40 thinking routines and studied examples from various subject areas. On October 22, they shared their favorite thinking routines with the U Prep faculty and had their colleagues practice the routines as students.

Successful students grasp the core ideas in a discipline. How do experts in English, history, and science make sense of the world? What questions remain unanswered? What controversies are most active in each field? To further develop instruction in these areas, U Prep faculty and staff members attend a variety of disciplinary conferences each year. Just this fall, these have included the Race and Pedagogy National Conference, the Washington State Council for the Social Studies, and the Northwest Mathematics Conference. Conversations continue each year about how to further refine our curricula to reflect contemporary thinking in the disciplines.

U Prep teachers are recognized leaders in teaching for understanding. On October 10 alone, the statewide in-service day, eight U Prep teachers presented their work at regional conferences, on subjects as varied as computer science, art and social change, Maker programs, teaching contemporary methods in English and visual art, and Middle School debate programs.

As independent schools such as U Prep continue to teach for understanding, the national education dialogue has begun to shift away from standardization and testing. The Common Core increases emphasis on analysis and application relative to previous national standards. Recent articles (e.g., Seattle Times Education Blog) have suggested that smaller class sizes and student-centered instruction help students succeed in school. While time will tell whether American education fully commits to the pursuit of thinking and understanding, U Prep will continue to prepare students to think, understand, and become intellectually courageous, socially responsible citizens of the world.

 

Happy “New Year!”

New year’s celebrations mark the retirement of a major calendar unit, a trip around the sun, and the passage of four seasons. We reflect on the events of this past cycle and express hopes for the next one. The media reminds us of public events of the past year, and nonprofit organizations request our help to reach their fundraising goals. In January, a new calendar cycle begins. However, many educators and students feel more like they are partway through a cycle than beginning a new one.

For education, the academic year holds far more significance than the calendar year. The academic year offers substance for reflection and anticipation. Students begin the year in a new grade, division, or school, with the corresponding institutional and social expectations, as well as development milestones. Teachers note another year of service, and length of tenure carries weight in schools. Professional goals, teaching assignments, and co-curricular responsibilities also change with the academic year, as educators gain the chance to deepen their practice and assume new roles.

December is a tricky time for schools. Holidays performances coincide with culminating academic moments. Schools face a choice: finish the term in December to help students enjoy their vacations or finish in January to spread out the work and balance the semesters. It’s tough to end the calendar year while the academic year keeps moving along.

Our lucky southern hemisphere colleagues get to combine the two. For them, December brings summer vacation, and January the start of a new school year. South of the equator, people neatly celebrate the ends and beginnings of school years in parallel with community celebrations of the calendar years. They mark the new academic year with four simple digits, while we awkwardly slide across an hyphen: “2014-2015.” Reflections and goal setting neatly align.

Which has more meaning to you, the academic year or calendar year? Answer this quick poll and feel free to elaborate in a comment below.

Which means more to you?

  • Academic year (100%, 1 Votes)
  • Calendar year (0%, 0 Votes)
  • They have equal meaning to me. (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 1

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Whether your days are currently long or short, hot or cold, I wish you a happy and prosperous new year.

 

What About the Content? Revising Curricula for Cultural Competency

NAIS People of Color Conference 2014

Sarah Peterson and I will be presenting this session on Thursday, December 4 at 10:00am in Room 204. We look forward to seeing you there.

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What About the Content slides  (+ hi-res version)

Thursday morning, my colleague Sarah Peterson and I will present “What About the Content? Revising Curricula for Cultural Competency” at the NAIS People of Color Conference in Indianapolis. The presentation reflects several goals, and participants will play a major role. We hope that you will be able to attend or otherwise share your stories with us.
Focus on Curriculum Content
Why have we focused this study specifically on curriculum content? Substantial, excellent work exists on school climate, classroom environment, teacher qualifications, and student empowerment. Yet, the content that we teach students plays a central role in their education and speaks powerfully about what (and who) the school values.
Focus on Required Courses
A school’s course of study typically includes required and elective courses. Teaching for cultural competency can be more easily found in elective courses, where teachers have greater freedom in curriculum development. However, the students we most need to reach may avoid such classes, and our diverse student body deserves a culturally representative learning experience in their required courses. We have chosen to focus this study on the core curriculum, while acknowledging that it is the hardest to change.
Share Examples from University Prep
On the one hand, we can proudly point to teachers and courses that have made tremendous strides in teaching for cultural competency. On the other hand, our students tell us that we still have much ground to cover. We will share a number of examples in this presentation that reflect our ongoing work toward a truly representative, relevant, and empowering core curriculum.
Share Participant Experiences and Points of View
While we have a lot to say on this subject, we are by no means experts, and the collective experiences and perspectives in the conference hall will no doubt exceed ours. We will take advantage of this gathering of attendees and ask everyone to participate first in small group discussions and then share out selected examples with the whole group. As a result, the session will end having identified a substantial number of curricular innovations in the required courses in our school.

Book Review and Further Thoughts: From the Ivory Tower To the Schoolhouse

schoolhouse2How much does educational research affect teacher practice? Not much, according to Jack Schneider, Holy Cross assistant professor and author of the new book From the Ivory Tower To the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education. Schneider, an educational historian who earned his Ph.D. at Stanford, picks up the torch carried by Larry Cuban and David Tyack for years. As institutions, schools are extremely resistant to change, and reliable pathways for translating research conclusions into practice are largely absent. So, when education practice does change as a result of education research, the reasons are worth close examination!

In the book, Schneider describes a model for the transmission of research-based ideas into practice, based on his study of four innovations that made the leap: Bloom’s taxonomy, Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, the project method, and direct instruction. Schneider is clear to explain that these four ideas represent the exception, not the norm. Also, the components of Schneider’s model for success hardly comprise a recipe. They are necessary, but not always sufficient, qualities for successful adoption. As Schneider expresses, luck plays a role.

Schneider’s conditions for successful transmission include: the perceived significance of the idea to educators; philosophical compatibility of the idea with current philosophy; occupational realism—the compatibility of the idea with practical constraints of teaching; and transportability, whether the idea can be simply explained and passed on. The four case studies share these qualities. Additionally, Schneider cleverly analyzes four other, research-based ideas that failed to gain adoption but bear striking similarities to the four that did. This provides strong support for the idea that the four identified characteristics are necessary conditions for adoption.Note that the scholarly merit of the idea does not make the list of success factors! With a positive reaction from educators, and a little luck, some research-based ideas tend to find adoption.

While a wonderful historical analysis, the book does not purport to predict the success of current educational innovations or provide a playbook for the design of future innovations. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder how the model applies to other, common educational practices, particularly those that we emphasize at U Prep. How does Schneider’s model apply to formative assessment, for example? Do we find such educational practices attractive because they meet Schneider’s criteria for successful transmission from research to practice?

Formative Assessment

We define formative assessment as actionable feedback on student work that does not count for a student’s term grade. Graded or ungraded, it provides students with insight into their mastery of the content, as well as a sense of direction for what to study more (or better) before the summative assessment. Not counting formative assessment in the term grade allows students to focus on the process of learning and deemphasizes the idea that students have fixed ability.

Perceived significance: Moderate. Teachers I have met almost universally agree that providing feedback on student work is one of their core responsibilities. However, teachers often balk at the idea that grades for ongoing work would not count in a student’s term grade.

Philosophical compatibility: The core idea of formative assessment is relatively compatible with common teacher opinions about student work. It’s hard to argue against feedback, and it makes sense that a student’s first assessment should provide signposts for subsequent work instead of affecting their term grade, which should reflect mastery achieved.

Occupational realism: The simple version of formative assessment is highly compatible with existing teacher practice. Just don’t count the first assessment of a body of knowledge or set of skills, then count the second or subsequent ones. The fuller concept, however, requires more significant change. The ideas that formative assessment should be specific and actionable represent a more significant departure from traditional teacher practice.

Transportability: The basic concept of formative assessment can be easily distilled to a few simple ideas and shared with teachers. Departures from the strategy are easy to spot in syllabi and examples of assessed student work. Authors and organizations have created a substantial body of conceptual and practical guides to formative assessments for the consumption of educators.

It might provide insight to apply this model to other educational practices, such as differentiated instruction, 1:1 student device programs, and individual teacher improvement. While these four criteria do not reflect any law of nature, they provide a helpful dose of realism when leading school change, underscoring the strong effects of professional culture.

Recent articles by Jack Schneider

‘If only American teachers were smarter…’ Washington Post

Closing the gap … between the university and schoolhouse Phi Delta Kappan

The Role of Data in School Decision-Making

Analyzing student and faculty data has added a critical new dimension to discussions of specific dynamics in our school. Teacher observations, administrator experience, and student anecdotes are all essential for the continual improvement of our school program. In addition, the trends, correlations, and distributions within our data have made our decision-making conversations more specific and helped resolve conflicts among competing, anecdotal points of view.

We have recently had success analyzing student and faculty data to better understand specific dynamics in our school. Many of these analyses become more clear through data visualization. Key questions include:

How often do we grant students’ top course requests?

Will our course offerings continue to accommodate a growing student body?

Are the foundational skills of our students changing over time?

Do standardized test scores predict academic performance?

What elective courses should we offer next year?

Do electronic textbooks save families money?

Our analyses of standardized test scores were the most rigorous. We created longitudinal charts of score means and medians, examined subscore trends as well, and calculated correlations among different scores. To confirm validity, three different groups performed the tests: myself, our statistics students, and a psychometrician from ERB. The fascinating, consistent result? The gut feelings of our community members have consistently had some truth to them, but anecdotal opinion has a tendency to exaggerate and oversimplify. Our data studies have both validated and identified the limits of anecdotal opinion. They have clarified the multiple facets of issues that people have reduced to simple statements.

Here are some examples of our data visualizations. Most are created in Excel using countif() and sumif() functions and chart tools. I apologize for obscuring much of the content for the sake of privacy. Instead of publishing it all publicly, I am presenting the full studies to the appropriate constituencies in our school community.

35 years of standardized test and GPA means

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Students’ initial thoughts about new elective courses

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Correlations among different standardized tests and GPA

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Longitudinal subscore analysis

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Print vs. Electronic Textbooks: Total Cost per Student

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Elective section enrollments

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Uses of Technology to Enhance Formative Assessment and Differentiated Instruction

CiC Tech Formative DifferentiatedAcademic Technology Director Jeff Tillinghast and I have co-authored an article for Curriculum In Context, the journal of the Washington State Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, an ASCD affiliate. We wrote a practitioner’s view of how our teachers use contemporary computing technologies to provide specific, rapid, and varied feedback to students and then accordingly adjust individual student instruction. Read the article (PDF) or access the full issue. Many thanks to Seattle Pacific University professor David Denton for inviting us to contribute to the journal.

 

Stanford+Connects Seattle

IMG_2572I relived a little piece of the Stanford experience and met interesting people at the Stanford+Connects event this past Saturday at the Washington Convention Center. These alumni events travel the country, featuring talks by the university’s president, several distinguished professors, and two students. I don’t ever make it to reunion events, and while I attend similarly timely and stimulating University of Washington or independent school talks from time to time, I don’t ever attend my college reunion events. I also got to learn about topics that I typically only read about or listen to through TED talks and NPR pieces. Some highlights for me: President Hennessy spoke to the many building and program development projects at Stanford, a number of which have emerged from the a recent comprehensive study of the undergraduate program. Among these: ten new joint majors that combine computer science with subjects in the humanities.

The five mini-lectures were most welcome, because of course I wanted to hear all of the speakers. These included two students: Westin Gaylord on a project that he and his friends started to write creatively every day, and Derek Ouyang on an energy neutral, pre-fab house core design competition for which he led a team. Three professors also presented mini lectures, Carla Shatz on restarting synapse generation in old age, S.V. Mahadevan on bringing emergency medicine to developing nations, and Robert Sutton on improving organizations by eliminating the bad. Dan Klein (with a nod to Patricia Ryan Madson) added an improv demonstration and three activities that got us out of our seats and meeting neighbors!

With a nod to our grad school memories, my wife and I attended David Kennedy’s historical review of water management in the U.S. west. Many alums fondly remembered Kennedy’s lectures, though this was my first! Kennedy shared a wealth of historical facts that laid the groundwork for contemporary federal water management practices, including many challenges. Did you know that the federal government owns fully 45% of the last west of the 100th meridian? This is in contrast to the east, in which the federal government sold nearly all of its holdings in the past. He painted a rather bleak picture for the future of the combined effects of rising global temperature, drought, and consumption increases.

Margot Gerritsen presented a detailed view into “unconventional” oil and gas, including tar sands and fracking. Her perspective, backed up with copious data, is that unconventional energy has already arrived, and we would be best served minimizing its negative effects than trying to “prevent” it from “emerging.” Gerritsen also demystified newspaper headlines, looking at the data to suggest that injection of chemicals into deposits during fracking is unlikely to contaminate groundwater, but water injection is in fact responsible for up to magnitude five earthquakes!

With a rare opportunity to learn outside of my field, I did not attend the one education session. However, I did take a moment to skim a paper by Candace Thille, who presented a session on big data and transformations in education. Thille is an expert on MOOCs and co-founded the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), first at Carnegie Mellon and now at Stanford. She echoes the distinction that others have noted between the original cMOOCs that adopt a connectivist pedagogy and the newer xMOOCs (Coursera, EdX) that have fueled popular interest. Thille then makes a further distinction between xMOOCs that simply put the university lecture hall experience online and those that make student data analytics available to instructors to further instruction.

Many thanks to the Stanford Alumni Association and Stanford Club of Washington for arranging a day of fun, learning, and contemporary topics.