kitchen table math, the sequel: 12/28/08 - 1/4/09

Thursday, January 1, 2009

*Open for Questions* questions

I mentioned in the comments of my previous Open for Questions: Education post that the set-up for reviewing questions over at is very cumbersome. You must scroll through the questions in the order they were posted and with more than 5,000 submitted at last count, most people aren't going to get very far. The result of this is that only the initial questions really get voted on. This is a shame considering the Obama transition team is supposed to be using this data to gauge the issues of interest.

What questions would you ask? Here are some of mine:

1) Balanced literacy (whole language) is failing to effectively teach children to read. As it stands, children are learning to guess words and memorize lists- they are not learning to decode language. When will phonics regain its proper place in the classroom?

2) Will you act upon the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s findings? Among other important recommendations they stated that math courses must be streamlined, focusing on a 'well-defined set of the most critical topics' taught to mastery.

3) In this economy, we need to learn how to do more with less. Throwing more money at the problem is not an option. Shouldn’t we be looking at successful models? KIPP, Green Dot, Cristo Rey and many charter, magnet, and private schools do more with less.

4) Why have liberal arts all but disappeared from our classrooms? Such study develops strong minds, ordered intellect, and teaches students how (not what) to think. We need a renaissance in our schools- we need to value our freedom by creating great thinkers.

5) Isn't our obsession with 21st century skills somewhat short-sighted? The liberal arts better prepare students to be creative and think critically by calling upon important content knowledge. It takes more than media literacy and computer skills to do that.

6) Will you encourage schools of education to revisit Project Follow Through, Precision Teaching, and Direct Instruction? How will you assure that we study and apply what cognitive and behavioral science has taught us about how children learn?

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Memory, Math facts, Flashmaster

Addition facts were moving very slowly for my daughter. Flash cards weren't helpful, writing the fact out wasn't that helpful, worksheets were helpful but slow.

On the advice of several people at the Well-trained Mind Forum, I got a Flashmaster. It has worked really well!

After you miss a fact 3 times in a row, they tell you the answer. Any fact you miss at least one time, they give you another problem, then the problem after that is the problem you just missed. That seems to be the perfect timing, it's been very effective. It also has several different modes. One mode gives you the last 15 problems you have missed. This is very nice, it's hard to keep up with normally. Doing all the ones she didn't know at once was frustrating to my daughter, so we do them offline. I've found that having her repeat the correct fact 3 times orally is the best way to get her to remember them.

The Flashmaster is also much faster than a worksheet for a young child who writes slowly, they can push a button much quicker than they can write out a number, so you can do a lot more math facts in the same amount of time. (It also does subtraction, multiplication, and division.)

Phonics, Webster's Speller, answer to L/R brain question

I’ve been busy teaching a group of 9 remedial 3rd to 6th grade students to read with the help of volunteers from my church. It went well! Their reading improved, on average, 1.4 grade levels after 2 months of instruction twice a week, about 90 minutes per time. (Sometimes less based on how much recess they got that day and other factors such as student to teacher ratio that day. The school does not have a gym, we got much less instructional time in on rainy days where they did not get recess. You could really tell when they didn't get enough recess, especially with the boys.)

We taught them with a shortened version of my online lessons, Don Potter’s Blend Phonics Reader, and Webster’s Speller. They played games at the end, my phonics concentration game and also a relay race type game with magnetic letters where they competed to see who could make the most words. They only thing they really learned in the last game was the importance of vowels, but it allowed us to clean up and they all loved it and looked forward to making words. The students also got a copy of my phonics lessons on DVD to watch for review, expect for 2 students who did not have a DVD player, those students watched the movies online at their local library on a computer with headphones.

Webster’s Speller is very powerful, it was helpful for all the students, but especially helpful for two ESL students (and their English is actually very good.) The arrangement of words by accent pattern is amazingly helpful for an ESL student, it helps them figure out when to schwa vowels, a process that comes more naturally for most students whose native language is English. (However, it is still very helpful for regular students, just more helpful for ESL students than for normal students.)

We also did a lot of oral spelling, that was very helpful as well, and very efficient for a large group of students.

I’ve been trying to get more people to try the Speller, and now have several people who post on the Well trained mind forum (a forum for those who homeschool with the Classical method) to try it out—I figured that people willing to tackle Latin would be most likely to tackle Webster’s Speller. A few are now trying it out, and one mom who’s trying it out wrote, “One thing that draws me to Webster's Blue Back speller is that he *wrote* the dictionary. I feel that he is truly an expert on the English Language.” He is, and you really have to try Webster’s Speller and see it in action to appreciate how powerful it is and how much better it is than any other phonics method out there.

You can see how to use Webster’s Speller here,
and I recently created a 20 minute movie showing how to use the Speller.

After typing replies on 9 pages of how to use the Speller on the Well Trained Mind Forum, I decided I had to make the movie or I’d by typing forever explaining how to use it. A picture IS worth 1,000 words in some cases.

Speaking of pictures, I haven’t been able to comment until today due to computer issues with certain websites that I just now resolved. Someone asked about the left/right brain thing with language, here’s the post and the movie where I discuss that. (My computer issues were such that it would load up at first, but then would not let me scroll down or do anything, so I could see a bit of the top post, and the recent comments when blogger had them working.)

spelling helps reading

In her path-setting work on the difficult learning tasks every child must face, [Rebecca Trieman] has shown the importance of phonological awareness: The degree to which children are aware of the sounds of language strongly predicts reading achievement. Children whose parents read to them frequently are tacitly learning that the squiggles on the paper are codes for sound, meaning—and pleasure.

Treiman is particularly noted among scholars for discovering that linguistic concepts applied to the realm of cognitive psychology are critical to learning how children's understanding about sounds develop, how they learn to read and spell—and why they make certain types of errors. One such concept is the idea that a syllable comprises subunits of sound—for example, the bl in the word black, followed by ack. But some clusters are difficult for children to separate. "A 6-year-old may be able to break up black into bl and ack, but to her the bl can't be divided any more finely—and since she can't pick out the l sound in there, she spells the word back."

Treiman's research contradicts many claims of whole-language advocates—who oppose teaching phonics, or "sounding out" words, and believe, loosely put, that children can look at words such as table and the meaning will jump out at them, like a picture. While these theorists contend that spelling will emerge naturally as a by-product of reading—Treiman has found otherwise. "Even though learning to read does not automatically make good spellers," she has written, "learning to spell does benefit children's reading. ... in part by improving [their] ability to focus on the individual sounds, or phonemes, within spoken words."

She has also found that in many first- and second-grade classrooms, spelling and reading are treated as separate subjects, taught at different times with unrelated materials (if spelling is formally covered at all). Observing that for many children "spelling means dreary memorization of lists of words and boring workbook exercises," she argues that writing and reading should be integrated in instruction and taught in a way "more sensitive to the natural course of spelling development."


...English is hardly chaotic... [I]n fact, a number of patterns exist, and a letter's pronunciation is often suggested by its surrounding letters." Treiman says she knows of programs in which teachers will point out that "oo" represents the sound of "ooh" in hoop and stoop, but when an exception like book appears, they'll say, "That doesn't fit the rule—you'll just have to learn that one." Actually, Treiman says, there is a pattern there: The sound in book comes much more frequently before k than before other letters.

...[O]f course, most teachers have never taken a single linguistics class and don't realize that patterns exist!"

nonsense words

Among the early findings: If 100 people are shown the pseudo-word "cilt," 70 percent will pronounce it "silt"—which reflects a very strong pattern in English. Surprisingly, despite years of exposure to words like cinder, cinnamon, and pencil, 30 percent of people tested use a hard c. (The computer [reader], of course, uses the sibilant c every time.) "That leaves some very interesting questions!" she says.

children with dyslexia

Treiman's earlier results challenged a widespread belief in her field: that dyslexic children learn very differently from other children. Although the children she tested were delayed, their stumbling blocks were very similar to what other, younger, non-dyslexic children struggled with. "We want to see whether we continue to find this controversial result," she says.

After the A, B, Cs

Rebecca Trieman: selected papers

more from palisadesk re: learning speed & precision teaching

At some point the student's learning rate will stop accelerating. There are various steps to take when this happens, but if the student consistently meets a wall at that point, despite the recommended steps, s/he has probably reached the ceiling in that area of learning. The ceilings might be different in different cognitive domains.

I take a flexible approach and figure the student's ceiling is likely within 2 standard deviations. Getting student performance (even IQ) up one standard deviation is not all that uncommon, and getting improvements of two standard deviations is less frequent but a regular occurrence. I suspect this is easier with younger students than older ones, but I do not have data on that. The SD range is what I keep in mind myself. Thus, I would not be trying to get a student with a diagnosed developmental delay and an assessed IQ of 55 into a college-prep program (4 SD).I would try to get this student functioning in the low average range. The data would tell me when a student had reached the ceiling on performance improvement in something specific.


There is plenty of data on what effective teaching looks like -- observations that can be gathered and assessed in a scientific way. The late Dr. Michael Pressley has written extensively on this; I recommend his Motivating Primary Grade Students for a well-written look at this question. He wrote more technical articles in journals; this one is an astute analysis of what makes early grade teachers effective, with examples and non-examples, and (for teachers) some workable suggestions that one can start to use right away.


I do not profess to understand the mind of the education administrator. I do know that good results are always attributed to what the school is doing (even though the results may be the outcome of actions by parents and tutors) while bad results are usually attributed to characteristics of students and families. It seems to be the way it is.


Learning centers such as the ones I cited serve a widely varied clientele, so I would be wary of overgeneralizing . What I know from my own research is that they set goals, develop detailed plans to meet those goals, and are successful with a wide variety of learners of different ages. It's probably a safe statement to posit that MOST people could learn much more and faster than they currently do, given the appropriate application of learning science and technology. Much is known now about cognitive processes and how learning occurs and how to work around various obstacles, but very little of this knowledge has trickled down to the grass roots -- schools in particular.


General principles of teaching effectiveness seem to apply across the board. For instance, effective teaching is highly interactive. Teacher and students(s) are interacting at a high rate -- teachers may model, give examples, pose questions, clarify distinctions, scaffold tasks, provide feedback, etc. while students may listen, ask questions, demonstrate, practice, compare/contrast, respond orally, by actions or written output, etc. The key thing is lots of interaction -- ON TASK interaction, not chit-chat; learning is active, not passive. Think of an orchestra conductor, or an athletics coach --the relationship of those people with their team/orchestra is highly interactive. Lots of back and forth. Engagement is high (another important component).

Pressley developed something like a checklist of behaviors of effective teachers . What these behaviors would look like and the specifics of application would vary of course (the type of interactive teaching that is effective in first grade would not be appropriate for seventh grade), but the general case would be the same. Pacing -- another important characteristic of effective teachers -- also varies by population. You speak faster and can move things along quicker in a group in middle school than in K. But appropriate pacing as a characteristic of effective teaching remains constant.


"Slow learners" are often (in educational jargon) those students who are deemed rather low in academic ability but not low enough to be considered intellectually disabled. They are very low average, and they take longer to reach the same levels of achievement as same-age peers (their physical development is sometimes slower as well). Then there can be students whose academic ability is average or even high but who are slow processors -- they may have difficulty with word finding, working memory, lexical access, various types of memory, co-ordination, motor skills. Typically these students need more repetitions to mastery and more distributed practice over time to become automatic on fundamental skills which they may *grasp* easily (conceptually) but not be able to apply reliably. The evidence is that some of these difficulties are neurologically determined, but again, we are working with a range -- so the individual can improve his or her own performance level and while s/he may never be "fast," s/he can meet average expectations. I think this is worth striving for, as it gives the individual many more choices in life and much more sense of competence.

If a child is truly slow, then it seems to me that there could be a variety of reasons and solutions that should be customized for the child

I agree, but realistically this is seldom done in school and in many cases I've seen, it is not realistic to expect it to be entirely done in school. We can only customize so far for individuals -- which is why homogeneous instructional grouping is so important in key areas.

I'm really an amateur in these matters myself, but I recommend people interested in the issues go to the excellent site maintained by an amazing self-educated parent activist: PT Wiki
Some of the items in the bar along the right -- "Why frequency matters," "Why celeration matters" etc. are a good place to start.

It's kind of a seeing is believing thing. When you see kids (or adults) make HUGE, sudden, dramatic leaps forward in their learning that change their lives, you can't help saying to yourself, Holy cow! WHAT was THAT? and trying to learn more to make it happen again.

If you haven't seen it you may not think it's possible and you certainly won't see what the fuss is about.

I have fun introducing as many of my colleagues as possible to that HOLY COW!! moment. They never look back.

Catherine speaking: the issue of slow processing has been intriguing to me ever since John Ratey told me a story about a patient whose husband left her because he thought she was timid and unadventurous. What she was, John said, was a slow perceptual processor. So, if she happened to be standing on top of a tall building, she'd hang far back from the edge because she feared she'd walk over the edge before her brain got the message she'd reached it. She applied the same principles to her driving, and a good thing, too.

and from Steve H:

Is effective teaching the same for true slow learners and for average kids? (I suppose you could say that effective means effective.) I wouldn't think so. My nephew was considered to be a slow learner, but my sister worked to provide him with better skills for approaching new material. She had the same issue when she was young. Now that he is grown up (with a degree in computer science), he is anything but a slow learner.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

palisadesk on increasing a student's rate of learning

There is data that you can improve individual children's rate of learning in specific areas. The general rule of thumb is that the rate of improvement will be about x2 : i.e., if a certain concept or discrimination required 100 trials to master, the next similar learning task will take 50 trials, then 25, etc up to an individual's ceiling. This is nicknamed the "learning curve," although on a semilog graph it will be a straight line. Individuals do have ceilings -- in this as in most things. Learning rate, like IQ, is a range rather than a point, and something that is modifiable by environmental variables.

Several early studies (1960's-1970's) were with severely handicapped children who needed THOUSANDS of repetitions to learn something. Their learning rate improved, under experimental conditions, to a much more normal (but still slow) rate. Thus, you will never turn a tortoise into a cheetah, but the tortoise might end up similar to an average dachshund. I have the cites on some of those articles but they are very recherché items in Sp. Ed. journals and not easy to look up. I'll see whether Catherine can run them down for me. Engelmann was a partner in some of them.

With more "normal" learners, there is lots of data in the PT [precision teaching] literature about improvement in learning rate. The Great Falls project (a school implementation of rate-building instruction in North Dakota in the 70's or 80's) collected quite a lot of data on this. The students' abilities generalized to many areas of the curriculum and the project was finally pulled, in part because too many kids ended up being classified as "gifted." One of the project managers was Ray Beck, who subsequently (and perhaps still) went to work for Sopris West. You could consult him for data on the project -- I know it has been published, but I don't know where.

PT practioners and their clinics also have a great deal of data on individuals and their rate of learning improvements. You could consult Elizabeth Haughton, the Center for Advanced Learning (CAL) in Las Vegas (can't remember the name of the person in charge), Dr. Kent Johnson at Morningside, Dr. Joe Layng who implemented many rate-building procedures both with stroke victims and with low-SES college students in his years in Chicago, Dr. Carl Binder and others for specifics of publications, data, etc. There's plenty out there, but you have to try hard to find it since it is in opposition to mainstream thinking.

Since my concern is with teaching students, not with convincing naysayers (I ignore them), I have made use of the lessons from these people to successfully get "hopeless" cases -- not only "dumb" kids but kids who learn at a slow rate -- functioning at higher levels so that they can compete in the mainstream successfully. Very few end up at the top of the heap (only one so far), but numerous others end up in the average range and that's what excites me, since they were initially regarded as too dyslexic, too stupid, too slow, too disadvantaged, too whatever, to succeed. At least once or twice a year I hear from one who has finished university, started a business, is successful in some field of study or application that I would never have thought of when he/she was a student (designing solar -powered homes in one case, marine biology in another, co-ordinating seniors' services for a community agency in a third). The point is that these students' can learn effectively (with DI, among other things) and their rate of learning can be maximized so that they are empowered to achieve meaningful goals.

In a perfect DI environment, you do periodically regroup students based on rate, but rate-building per se is not something DI people typically focus on, and its largest application has been with people in Special Ed populations (autism, developmental disabilities, LD). For people currently doing cutting edge work in the field, google Michael Fabrizio, Alison Moors, Richard McManus, Kent Johnson (I can probably think of others).

It's hard work, but it can be done. Will it be done routinely in the school system? Not in our lifetime I suspect.
Can a school that slows learning to a crawl via heterogeneous grouping, required collaboration, discovery, problem-solving, whole-to-part teaching and all the rest of it reduce a student's rate of learning?

If IQ decreases in mediocre-to-bad schools, does learning speed decrease as well?

on not teaching to mastery
how to build a fast learner (one-trial learning in rats)

palisadesk on the Great Decoders

Is it true there are lots of kids who decode fluently but have extremely poor reading comprehension?

Not really. You find the phenomenon of children who decode very well but understand almost nothing in only two populations: children with intellectual disabilities and children with very limited English. [yes! I am a "great decoder" in French & Spanish & probably in Italian and German as well. I understand quite a lot of what I read in Spanish (& used to understand a great deal); some of what I read in French; none of what I read in Italian and German. In my case great decoder/poor comprehender = not my native language]

In both groups you occasionally find students who quickly master the alphabetic principle, learn the required correspondences between sounds and symbols, and may even grasp patterns of speech and inflection, but do not know enough language to make sense of what they are reading. They lack the vocabulary, the syntactical sense (pronoun referents, subordinate clauses etc.)

In neither case (IMO) is it a problem that the student can decode well; the teaching challenge is to build the student's language comprehension in a variety of ways.

I often hear teachers say they have students who are "great decoders" and "poor comprehenders." I decided to investigate this phenomenon. I waved some $50 bills at a teachers' meeting and offered $200 to anyone who could find such a student for me who was NOT clearly an ELL case or a student with cognitive challenges.

I asked them to discriminate by using a simple task: take an example of text that the child can readily "decode" but can't "comprehend." Read the text to him or her, and do some oral comprehension items.

If the child can't answer the ORAL comprehension questions, you are not looking at a "reading" problem -- you have a language problem. Maybe vocabulary, maybe background knowledge, maybe receptive language comprehension generally --but not "reading."

On the other hand, if you have a child who understands material read aloud at a high level, but can't READ that text, you (usually) have a decoding problem.

We had a principal who used to tell staff that the school had lots of "great decoders" who were "poor comprehenders." (I think they tell them this stuff at principals' meetings.)

One year we tested the entire middle school (1:1 testing, more accurate). Guess what we found? We had NO students who were "great decoders" but "poor comprehenders," except for a few individuals in the recent immigrant or intellectually disabled group. We had DOZENS -- maybe a hundred -- kids who were poor DECODERS -- in almost every instance, they did not know vowel sounds, vowel digraphs/teams, or how to sound out multisyllable words. EVERY SINGLE KID said that their "strategy" for figuring out an unknown word was to "look at the first letter and guess." Now, where did they get that idea?

Something about DATA, as opposed to perception, changed attitudes. The principal started to encourage teaching decoding skills (without neglecting other important areas). Teachers became more aware of the need to teach kids to sound out words, to learn morphemes, word parts, and strategies for combining and disassembling them.

Now when we find kids who decode adequately, but are poor comprehenders, we usually see issues of rate and fluency. Children in eighth grade reading sixty words per minute can't keep up (Heck, sixty wpm won't cut it in FOURTH grade). So we work on that.

Stanovich somewhere put out a call in The Reading Teacher for data on students who were "great decoders" who could not understand what they read, and he got no useful case studies. Most students whom teachers refer to as "great decoders" are actually nothing of the kind -- if you measure what they do, they often lack critical decoding skills and read relatively slowly, so that the meaning of complex text gets lost in the effort required.

the crafty copyer

from palisadesk:
There's another category -- ones I call "in school dropouts." They are physically present, keep the chairs warm, may engage in occasional Jokery, do well enough to pass, sometimes are B students, but are gifted and bored to death. They give token compliance, largely ignore what is going on, and are likely to do their own thing (write novels, program video games, draw and invent, etc.)

These students are ones who also could and should be at the top but are completely disengaged. They don't make trouble, like Jokers, and they don't attract attention for doing what the school wants, like Nerds.

I spot them pretty often because in my early days in DC public schools I was one, too.
from Paul:
These are The Crafters, often found working on some clandestine project in their lap; could be homework, could be spitballs, or maybe they're reading a book.

I don' have too many of those because my furniture is such that they have no place to do their nefarious deeds without my eyes catching the contraband.

Funny thing is, my principal complained about my furniture in an observation. Silly me, I thought that was her domain. I mustn't have gotten the memo. :>{
Come to think of it, I do have one especially crafty Crafter. Let's call him Thomas Jefferson. Thomas's craft is rubber bands. He puts every ounce of his energy into shooting kids in the back of the head with little wads of paper shot from his crafty perch inside his extra bulky hoody that we are not allowed to ban.

I've been on to 'Jeff' for some time and he knows it. That's why the extra effort is required. He has to keep one eye on me, one on his victim, another on his copying, and the last on the door, lest the VP (who is also on to him) drops in for a surprise reconnaissance. Since he has but two eyes, he is mightily challenged to keep all these balls in the air, so to speak.

We moved him to another class, away from his best friends in order to least free up one eye for school work, since he'd no longer be with the copying enablers. This was a disaster. He went from a B to an F and mom got on the phone to fix his grades. She didn't call me, surprise! She called a sympathetic administrative ear to get him back to his old classroom to 'improve' his grade. It worked!

Old Tom will be back in his original class after the break. At least I'll be able to catch him at his craft more often as he'll be back to copying again which reduces his ability to watch me. He won't be getting his B back though, as I'm planning something special for his seating arrangement.

Hopefully mom will be back on the phone 'helping' her son in 5 weeks.

This makes me want to drop everything & re-read Tom Sawyer right this minute.

Since I'm not going to do that, here's a question: what do these kids do when placed in a hands-on 21st century collaborative group?

your name here


(spotted at V's blog)

running for the exit

21st century skills
consist most of not noticing
that every time they "improve"
something, it gets worse.

i've been running like hell
for the exit (forward!
into the past!) but 19th C
skills like loving a well-crafted
sentence don't seem to pay ...

let's see: some substance?
naw. just: what barry said.
everybody edits their own;
anarchy rules.


it's the curriculum, stupid

Have just discovered CCUSD Watch!

This is droll:

I'll do my part toward balancing the budget and give two form letters the district can use so Ms. Shafir can be hired on a consultant basis for her other duties.

1. Dear Parent/Teacher/Student/Advocate/Newspaper:

CCUSD/BMES/DAMS/LMES/DWES/STMS/CSHS is an Excellent/High Testing/Really Neat School/District based on these entirely Reliable Test Scores/Eye Witness Accounts/Arbitrary Benchmarks/Football team record and due to the implementation of Everyday Math/Smartboards/SI/IB/AP/Finger paints.

Sincerely, Nedda Shafir


Dear Parent/Teacher/Student/Advocate/Newspaper:

Unfortunately the district cannot talk/reveal/discuss/address/comment on the resignations/sexual abuse at DAMS questions/low test scores/high school teacher plagiarism/political infighting/anonymous bloggers due to reasons of privacy/security/reluctance/inconvenience. Please further all additional questions to Ms. Shafir/Dr. Ashby/The board where they may/or may not be addressed/skimmed/ignored.

Nedda Shafir

SMARTBrief & Dan Willingham has a blog!

I am now a subscriber to the ASCD's SMARTBrief.

Sometimes this comes in handy, as when I can alert Dan Willingham to a new and wrong SMARTBrief informing educators that: “Students can benefit from tackling hardest material first.”

My heart sank when I read that headline because it gives aid and comfort to my district, where all instruction is based on the premise: hard first. e.g.: henceforth, Kindergarten children will do "research" and 3rd grade children will write "papers." That's the plan.

Seeing as how most college students can't do research and write papers, I would prefer my tax dollars not be spent on the profusion of classroom teachers, "literacy specialists," and "professional development opportunities" the district will require in order to teach writing the hard way to 5 year olds.

Fortunately, Dan W made short work of that one.

At least, he made short work of the claim on which it was based.

news flash:

Dan Willingham has a blog!!

Also a new article on studying and memory (pdf file) in American Educator!

The new article is one of his best. Fantastic.

According to Dan, the 3 principles of memory research most useful to students are:

1. memories are formed as the residue of thought: we remember what we think about [A couple of years ago I had the blinding revelation that when you obsessively go over and over a grudge or a grievance, you are in fact rehearsing that grudge and/or grievance. Which is often a bad idea. On the other hand, obsessively rehearsing school district and/or town council misbehavior has its uses.]

2. often memories are inaccessible not because we've forgotten the material, but because we lack the proper cue to recall that material to consciousness

3. the over-confidence principle: people tend to think their learning is more complete than it is

how to apply the principles

1. we remember what we think about

For teachers, the trick is to give students assignments that will force them to think about the material they've read or heard:
Given that we typically want students to retain meaning, we will mostly want students to think about what things mean when they study. It would be nice if you could simply tell your class, “When you read your textbook, think about what it means.” Naturally, you know that’s not the case. The instruction to “think about meaning” is difficult to follow because it is not specific enough. A better strategy is for students to have a specific task that will force them to think about meaning.*

Through a series of studies, reading researcher Michael Pressley figured out a way to do this that asked students to pose just one simple, specific question. He encouraged students to ask themselves “why?” at the end of each sentence as they read passages. passages. In one study, fourth- through eighth-grade students read brief passages about animals.12 For example, one began, “The Western Spotted Skunk lives in a hole in the ground. The skunk’s hole is usually found on a sandy piece of farmland near crops.” After reading each sentence, students were to ask themselves why that piece of information might be true. The researchers found that doing so produced a quite sizable benefit to memory, compared with students who were simply told to read the passage and remember it.

I think question-asking is phenomenally useful, and in fact I do something quite similar to Pressley's instructions myself when I read.

Willingham has various suggestions for how to handle longer chunks of text, but I would start by telling students to take Eugene Schwartz's advice:

turn the chapter's main ideas into questions

Any idea, phrase or sentence can be turned into a question by putting what, when, where, why, or how in front of it.

Take your reading assignment outline, extracted from your chapter signposts, and turn them into questions. The chapter title the background sources of Greek Civilization becomes what are the background sources of Greek Civilization?. A chapter title of The human body: a living machine becomes how is the human body like a living machine?.

Now you read each chapter, looking only for the answers to your questions.

You can see immediately what this technique does. It forces your attention on the main points, and prevents your being distracted by minor details.

How to Double Your Child's Grades in School by Eugene Schwartz

2. cues that work: mnemonics (Willingham explains) And, speaking of mnemonics, there is a new book of school mnemonics out: i before e (except after c) by Judy Parkinson

3. making sure you've actually learned the material and can recall it on a test (or in a conversation): overlearning
Students should study until they know the material and then keep studying. How long they should continue studying depends on how long they hope to retain the material, how they will be tested, and other factors, but a good rule of thumb is to put in another 20 percent of the time it took to master the material.
(So if it takes me 3 years to learn algebra 1 & 2, should I keep studying another 18 months after that?)

last but not least: the secret of peer teaching

For years I've noticed that, yes, I do learn more when I have to teach or explain a concept to someone else.

Turns out there is a very simple reason for this phenomenon:

" will definitely think about material carefully if you teach it to others..."

Can't believe I didn't think of that myself.

demonstrations of the 3 principles of memory by Dan Willingham (pdf file)
An Approach to Reading that Really Works, part 1 (Carolyn Johnston)
An Approach to Reading that Really Works, part 2 (Carolyn Johnston)

Decline At The Top Redux

A parent with a child in an affluent school district emailed asking about the decline at the top. Here's my response. Thought it might be worth a visit....

My observations of high-ability kids in public schools are related to the whole grade level/mastery issue. I have a few really high kids. They fall roughly into two camps. Camp one is Nerd Camp.

These are the kids who; don’t misbehave, catch all the teacher’s mistakes, get concepts quickly, self motivate, learn from texts, and need little guidance. For me, teaching Nerds is sort of like steering a sailboat. You just watch the sails and steer the thing.

Camp two is Joker Camp. Jokers are as bright and ‘with it’ academically as the Nerds with one exception. When Nerds run out of stuff to do, they come and ask you for more things to do. When Jokers run out of stuff to do, they become the leaders who bring the rest of the class (except for the nerds) to the dark side. You never take your eyes off the Jokers. Teaching them is like steering a Ferrari. You can go like hell but watch the curves, ‘cause they’ll take them too fast and crash when you don’t expect it.

I think this is related to the mastery issue by its relationship to what I call the classless school. These kids need to be challenged, all the time, not just for the first ten minutes of each class. There needs to be a system where you take kids who get something really fast and put them in front of the ‘next thing’. Blow away grade levels. Today we lock them up in a grade level like mushrooms and they don’t do well. If mastery was the guide, instead of their shoe size, you could get them out in the sun.

If they’re in a room (grade level) where the teacher is overwhelmed with kids 4 years below them, they’re the first ones tossed under the bus. There’s also, sadly, a measurement issue. Do you get more kudos as a school system from raising ( a low number ) of high achievers by, say, 3%, or from raising (a high number) of low achievers by, say, 10%?

That last, was a rhetorical question :>{

Side note. I was in the Joker Club. I only became a Nerd after 4 years in the Coast Guard taught me the joys of being a grunt.

Another side note. I’m currently tutoring a 10th grade AP student from a neighboring wealthy suburb. He can’t divide. I don’t know how he got into the class. I suspect there was an empty seat. Sometimes I think we’re doomed.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Liars Figure and Figures Lie (sometimes)

If you want to get a look at systemic performance of a school system's instruction it's useful to compare grade level performance on standardized tests. My district uses testing from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). Three times each year our kids are tested on their Measures of Academic Performance (MAP Tests). This is a computer driven adaptive test.

As kids answer questions (English and Math are tested separately about 80 minutes each) the tests adapt to their answers, seeking to produce appropriate questions for wherever they are academically. As a result we get RIT scores that are independent of grade level, i.e. if a third grader and an eighth grader get the same score, they've answered the same stuff correctly. You can read all about the scoring and nature of the tests on their site.

** WARNING: A bit of math is next. If you are math averse skip this section. ***

Academic tests, the length of peoples arms, the height of trees, and tons of stuff in nature conform to a normal probability distribution, more commonly known as the bell shaped curve. The curve is symmetrical about the mean of what you are measuring and it has the propery that the area under the curve, over some range, represents the percentage of people in that range. So for example, the area under the entire curve is 1 or 100%. The area from the minimum to the mean is .5 or 50%.

The shape of the bell can be narrow or broad as determined by the standard deviation of the data. Without going into the math just think of the standard deviation as the amount that the data varies from the mean. If you grow a certain variety of tomato in your back yard you might expect your tomatoes to have a wider range of diameters than the same variety grown in a greenhouse with controlled lighting and feeding. A perfect crop might have a distribution that looks more like a knife blade than a bell and a really bad crop grown next to your compost pile might look more like a mushroom than a bell.

*************** End of Math Warning *****************

For kids taking consecutive math courses in a perfect system you'd expect to get bells that all have roughly the same shape, marching across the page with equal spacing between them. NWEA expects about 8 points of shift in the mean for each year. Below is a graph from schools in my district showing math scores for grades 3-8. Each grade is represented below as a distinct curve.

Notice that the means (at the peak of the curve) are marching across the page as you'd expect but there are two concerns. One is that the means are not moving by 8 points which is the national average. The other is that the standard deviation is getting bigger, making each successive year exhibit a fatter bell. The right sides are moving. The left sides are relatively anchored. The peaks are lowering to make up for the plumper curves.

You can do some math on these curves to show that fully 33% of the eighth grade is performing at a level that 95% of the third grade reached. 29% of the 7th grade, 51% of the 6th grade, 83% of the 5th grade, and 91% of the 4th grade are mixing it up in their respective curricula with the same skills that 95% of the 3rd grade has.

We have the following systems driving this data: no retention policy (we even have retention tryouts), no remediation policy, group work, spiral curricula, constructivist, discovery 'learning' and an enormous (>30% transient) population. The data shows how it's working. These are system wide policies independent of school, text, or teacher quality.

In the normal distribution the mean value (at the peak) is the median. This happens because it's a symmetrical distribution.

For a teacher, this means your targeted lesson is the median child. 50% of your kids are above it and 50% are below it. Theoretically you aren't targeting anybody in the room. Of course this is where theory and practice diverge and of course you are bound to 'hit' someone with your lesson. But, the reality is that with all those 3rd graders in the room your attention is mostly focused on the neediest.

The panacea (silver bullet) for this is differentiation. If you really want to fix it though you have to start demanding mastery while at the same time doing away with arbitrary (non-academic) grade level groupings.

If you can replace grade levels with placement based on demonstrated mastery, differentiation goes the way of the dodo bird and all those fat bells go on a diet. You'll likely need less teachers while producing better results. It's not class size that matters, it's standard deviation.

Open for Questions: Education

Why not vist and ask the Obama aministration a question or two about education? Actually, you can also ask them about the economy, national security, foreign policy, and just about anything else that's been nagging you.

They've certainly made it easy enough. All you have to do is visit Open for Questions (you do have to register to participate). Others may vote on how important your concerns are and you can vote on theirs too.

The goal is to get a pulse on what people like us want people like them to zero in on by using votes to rank the various issues. When it comes to education, we have a big challenge ahead of us while simultaneously dealing with decreasing resources. Figuring out precisely what Americans want the administration to focus on and where to direct funding and effort may be a very wise first step.

They need to hear from us. KTM contributers and commenters have some very important arguments to add to this education debate. It would be a shame if we let this opportunity to add to the discussion pass us by.