Tuesday, December 8, 2015

In John Milton Gregory's classic, The Seven Laws of Teaching, one of the laws he describes is that learning must move from the known to the unknown. He writes: "Find out what your pupil knows of the subject you wish to teach...This is his starting point", and, "Lead him to clear up and freshen his knowledge by attempting a clear statement of it", and again, "Make every advance clear and familiar, else the next step may be from unknown to unknown--a violation of the law."

Getting feedback from students on their learning, and then also giving to students feedback on that learning, are critical pieces in the process of moving from the known to the unknown. Below are a few important things to keep in mind about feedback:

Getting Feedback from Students 

1. Teachers should frequently seek to find out during the lesson what students are understanding and misunderstanding. There are many means of doing this, from hand signals and white boards to pair-share activities, and more. 

2. Feedback from students should be involuntary. It's vital to check with all students, not just the eager few who want to answer. Teachers should check frequently with individual students as well as with the class as a whole, not just ask for volunteers. A good ratio would be something like 3:1--three involuntary responses for every voluntary. 

3. All-inclusive. There should be some checking for understanding in every lesson that involves all students--no volunteers, no opting out. 

4. These checks should usually be non-graded events. The purpose is to see what students' level of understanding currently is and to adjust your instruction accordingly. The activity can be scored, of course, if a numerical value is of help to you and the students. 

5. Use the results to revise instruction as needed. Again, the purpose of getting frequent, involuntary feedback from all students is so that teacher can be modified if necessary to respond to areas of misunderstanding or partial understanding. 

Giving Feedback to Students

1. Feedback to students must be descriptive, not merely a number or a grade. In fact, as every teacher knows, when a piece of work is returned with comments and a grade students generally focus on the grade and largely ignore the fine and helpful comments teachers have given them. Find ways to separate any grade (if one is necessary) from the descriptive feedback so that students will concentrate on responding to improving their performance. 

2. Make sure feedback is specific. Comments like 'good job' or even 'excellent', while meant to be encouraging, are not effective feedback. Students need to hear specifically where their work is excellent and where it needs to be better. Tying specific feedback to previously introduced rubrics will allow students to know more exactly what they need to do to improve. This will also help them to take more responsibility for their own learning. 

3. Feedback should be frequent and timely. Students need to receive frequent feedback on how they're doing. There should be many opportunities for them to express their understanding, with feedback coming back to them in a timely way so that they can act on it and improve their learning. 

4. Students should use feedback to revise and track their learning. Time should be planned for students to use the feedback to make changes in some way, as needed. They may need to revise an essay, or rework a math problem. Students should also be giving the time to track their progress, again using the feedback they receive from classroom assessments and assignments. 

Getting and giving effective feedback helps both teacher and students stay focused on the learning and what students may be misunderstanding or only partially understanding. Without feedback teachers don't really know how students are doing, and students don't really know how they're doing. Teachers who plan to frequently check all students for understanding, and who give descriptive, specific and timely feedback to students, will be able to ensure that their students are learning what they want them to learn, and that their students will increasingly take responsibility for their own learning. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Be strong, live happy, and love, but first of all
Him whom to love is to obey, and keep
His great command; take heed lest passion sway
Thy judgment to do aught, which else free-will
Would not admit; thine and of all thy sons
The weal or woe in thee is placed; beware.
               Paradise Lost, Book VIII, lines 633-638

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How can teachers be sure that their tests assess what is taught?
We want students to be able to trust that we have prepared them well for tests in our classes. Here are some ways to make sure this happens:

1. Make sure that all test items are derived from the course curriculum and unit objectives.
Test items and class lessons should reflect the unit objectives, and these should flow specifically from the course goals. Teachers should continually check their assignments and tests to be sure that what they're teaching, and what they're testing, are in alignment with the curriculum goals. 

2. Construct tests (at least the main topics or skills) in advance of teaching the unit.
Having a clear idea of what will be tested before teaching a unit will focus learning targets and lesson plans toward this learning. 

3. Share the unit plan with students in advance, including the main skills or knowledge that will be assessed.
Sharing with students what the learning will be for the unit will help to give them a clear idea of where they are going, which is important in taking the mystery out of what the desire learning will be. The more students know about the goals of the unit the greater their potential for learning them will be.

4. Be sure that daily learning targets are based on the unit plan.
Daily learning objectives are expressions on the larger goals of the unit plan. Daily objectives support and build up to the unit goals. Again, share these daily targets with students.

5. Be learning target-focused in daily lesson planning.
Learning targets should drive lesson planning. Not teacher activity or even student activities, but the student-learning objectives for the lesson. Teachers who focus student activities and assessments on learning targets are more likely to ensure that students will acquire the desired learning. 

6. Use frequent, involuntary and un-graded formative assessments to check for understanding of the targets.
Checking for understanding using brief, frequent, ungraded assessments allows the teacher to know if students are on track in learning what they are supposed to be learning. 

7. Offer frequent descriptive feedback to students.
Make sure students know how they're doing by giving them descriptive and frequent feedback. 

8. Adjust teaching as necessary, based on the results of formative assessments.
With the end learning goals in mind, teachers can re-teach or adjust instruction based on what the checking for understanding tells them.

9. Test items should reflect the relative importance of the skill or knowledge taught in the unit.
Teachers should be sure that the balance of learning required on any test reflects the balance of the learning targets. 

10. Students should have had frequent practice with every skill or knowledge that is included on a test, with frequent formative assessment and feedback. 

It's pretty simple, really: If it hasn’t been taught, and taught thoroughly, don’t test it.

Remember that a test is as much (if not more) an assessment of the teacher's work as it is of the students'. If the student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"But the operations of the mind are of two kinds--the one of thought, the other of impulse. Thought is occupied chiefly in seeking the truth; impulse urges to action. Care, then, is to be taken that we employ thought on the best subjects possible, and that we make impulse obedient to reason."
Cicero, De Officiis 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

"The way in which most of the things we use are serviceable to us and answer their end is in their being strained, or hard-pressed, or violently agitated. Thus the way in which the bow answers its end is in hard straining of it to shoot the arrow and do the execution; the bow that won't bear straining is good for nothing, So it is with a staff that a man walks with: it answers its end in being hard-pressed. So it is with many of the members of our bodies, our teethc, our feet, etc. They are useful and answer their end by some violent straining, pressure, agitation, collision or impulsion, and they that are so weak not to bear the trial of such useage are good for nothing.
 Here is a lively representation of the way in which true and sincere saints (which are often in scripture represented as God's instruments or utensils) answer God's end, and serve and glorify him in it: by enduring temptation, going through hard labor, suffering, or self-denial or such service or strains hard upon nature and self. Hypocrites are like a broken tooth, a foot out of joint, or broken staff, a deceitful bow, which fail when pressed or strained."
Jonathan Edwards, Image of Divine Things 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

One of the temptations teachers face is focusing on student activities rather than learning goals. We all have favorite lessons or projects we think students will enjoy or get something valuable from, and so we plan with these things in mind. The danger of this is that it's often not very clear to us or to our students just what learning is supposed to take place and why. As a result, we're often not sure how to assess whether students have learned what we hoped they would.  

A sure sign of a weak learning target is unclarity as to assessment. If I can't think of just what (and how) I'm going to assess learning during or after a lesson, then it's a safe bet that my target isn't clear and I've been focused on an activity and not on student learning. I need to move from my activity-orientation to a goal-orientation. Here's how:

1. 'Begin with the end in mind.' Start with the goal or target, and think of it in terms of what students will learn or do. Knowing where you want students to get in the end is more important than knowing what activity they'll do.  Activity is not our goal--learning is. We need to know where we're going, not just what we'll do along the way. 

2. Once the target is clear, then plan how you will assess the learning, both during and after the learning. Checking for understanding is critical to teaching and learning, and assessments should flow naturally from clear targets. 

3. Once the target is clear and the assessments are in place, activities can then be designed or adapted to teach the desired learning. Interestingly, by starting with the goal we sometimes discover that a favorite project or activity isn't so great after all. It may have served a purpose once, but now we just don't get as much from it as we (and students) need. Thinking about the target first may lead us to create a more effective learning activity. Working this way holds true whether we're planning units or daily lessons.

Activities are very important, of course, and are at the heart of learning. Targets and activities are not mutually exclusive, rather, well-designed activities deliver on the desired learning target. 

Another benefit of starting with the student learning goal is that it tends to push us away from teacher-focused activities and more toward student-focused activities. Students should do most of the thinking and intellectual work in the classroom. Keep the student-learning goal central and this will be more likely. 

We want students doing interesting and challenging work in our classrooms, but we want them doing this toward some well-defined end. Beginning with the end goal in mind will help us be sure that this happens. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"The goal [of education] is not letters after one's name, but character that preceeds one's presence by reputation."
Grant Horner, John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

When I played baseball as a kid the most tedious (and longest) part of practice was batting practice. This generally consisted of one player taking cuts at the pitches thrown by the coach, with the rest of the players scattered throughout the field chasing the occasional hit. Most of this time was spent standing and watching as one player after another took their allotted cuts, and one player fielded a ball. 

As I got older some of my coaches began using the time much more effectively by breaking players into smaller groups to practice hitting whiffle balls, bunting, working on pitching, etc. while only a few players collected the balls from batting practice. The difference was that all the players were engaged in some worthwhile practice. There was no standing around. We were involved with something useful all the time. 

One of the most important characteristics of an effective classroom is that all students are engaged in learning all the time. This can be challenging in situations where group instruction focused on one student at a time is thought to be most useful. In any whole-class learning we want to avoid the 'batting practice' scenario above where one student is engaged in learning (answering questions, giving a speech, reading, working at the board, etc.) and other students can tune out. Or, think of a DMV line--one person actively engaged and many others waiting passively for their turn. 

So, how do we avoid neglecting a class of students while we engage one or a few at a time? It isn't enough to just have them 'follow along' or 'pay attention' to what's going on. We want them to be mentally engaged with the learning at all times. Below are a few things that teachers can do to get started thinking about this very real challenge. 

  • have students correct their own work, fill in blanks on a study guide or fill in a graphic organizer
  • have students use a grading sheet or rubric to assess student presentations or speeches
  • stop occasionally and have students write three questions they have, or summarize the main point; or have them tell how they did the process differently, or would do it differently
  • stop and have A tell B, and a few Bs tell the class a main idea, question, or point of difference
  • if reading aloud is being used, have students not reading use active reading marks; have them show their marks occasionally to you or to another student
The items above are just a few of the strategies teachers can use to be sure that all students are engaged all the time in class. There are many ways to do this, of course. The main point is that we need to be sure that we don't have students 'standing in line' waiting for their turn or standing in the outfield staring at the clouds while a few students do something meaningful. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"For Milton, education is nothing more or less than the refashioning of a young, though fallen, human soul into a closer imitation of the image of God."
 Grant Horner, John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sticky notes can be a great tool for checking for understanding. In this particular activity, my 11th Grade Humane Letters students were using the progymnasmata exercise of comparison to evaluate the main characters in the Shakespeare plays, Pericles and Antony and Cleopatra, which we had just seen at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. 

For this particular activity, I did the following:
  • I had students individually consider the characters of Perices and Antony, given a worksheet with the comparison headings of birth, education, and achievements. 
  • After ten minutes, students then broke into small groups to compare notes. 
  • On blue and orange sticky notes I asked them to write one or two-word characteristics or traits for both figures, for each area (birth, education, achievements). If the trait was praise-worthy, they put it on an orange sticky. If not praise-worthy, then they put it on a blue sticky. After 10 or 15 minutes they had a collection of notes for each character. 
  • I put a grid on the board with the three areas horizontal and Pericles and Antony vertically. 
  • They then put the stickies in the appropriate boxes on the board.
  • We then discussed what they thought about each character, considering the areas of comparison and the virtues or vices they had identified. The color-coding made it easy to see at a glance that the students considered that the two characters had similar traits of birth and education, but in achievements Pericles was nearly all orange (virtue) and Antony very blue (vice). 
  • After further discussion, their exit pass was to write a paragraph comparing the two figures, assessing which was worthy of emulation or a figure to not emulate. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"I have never bothered or asked", Goethe said to Friedrich Soret in 1830, "in what way I was useful to society as a whole; I contented myself with expressing what I recognized as good and true. That has certainly been useful in a wide circle; but that was not the aim; it was the necessary result."
Joseph Pieper, Leisure, The Basis of Culture 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Learning targets (or objectives) should focus specifically on what students will be able to do after the learning has taken place. They should be as clear and as concrete as possible, and teachers, as well as students, should be able to tell when they've been accomplished. 

Below is a table of some examples of strong and weak learning targets. Some of the examples in the weak category might be desirable as goals, but they won't be very helpful in guiding the teaching process, and they are stubbornly difficult to assess. 

The student will be able to…
The student will be able to…
label the bones of the hand
know the bones of the hand
define what the term worldview means
be clear about what worldviews are
recall the causes of the French Revolution
think about the causes of the French Revolution
solve and graph inequalities with two variables
work with inequalities with two variables
apply the elements of beauty to a new piece of art
appreciate a work of art

summarize the impact of the French Revolution
study the effects of the French Revolution
describe the causes of the French Revolution
be clear about the causes of the French Revolution
seek to understand the causes of revolution
analyze the roles of the key figures in the French Revolution
see the importance of the leaders of the French Revolution
explain why a work of art is worthy of praise
be inspired to admire the work of an artist
marvel at God’s creation
evaluate the justice or injustice of the actions of the leaders of the French Revolution
notice that there were warnings long before the outbreak of the French Revolution

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Effective classroom teachers successfully integrate four critical skills into their classrooms:
1. Content Planning
2. Assessment
3. Instruction
4. Classroom Culture/Management

In this post, I'll describe some of the elements of effective classroom culture.

All education is ultimately self-education, but teachers play a critical role in only guiding students' learning but in providing an orderly and gracious place where learning can best happen. Classroom environment has often been described in terms of managing the behavior and actions of students, and while this is necessary, it isn't a substitute for teachers creating a class culture of mutual respect and a love of learning. 

In an effective classroom, the teacher's interactions with students are professional and respectful, warm and loving. These will be expressed differently, of course, accounting for differences of temperament of both teacher and student. But the character of the effective classroom is one of kindness and respectfulness. Certainly teachers must be the undisputed authority in the room, but this doesn't mean that the classroom is a cold place. Warm and courteous relations are the norm in the effective classroom.

As the tone-setter in the room, the teacher can help students to fit comfortably into this culture by carefully thinking out in advance, and communicating clearly to students,the expectations they have for routines and movements. Students need to know what is appropriate to say, how to move, what to do, how to ask for help, etc., for each activity and transition. Again, the point isn't control but a classroom that runs smoothly so that students can get on with the business of learning. The fuzzier the expectations are, or the less consistently they are applied, the more potential trouble the teacher is encouraging in the room. And this is, of course, very detrimental to learning. Teachers who don't clearly communicate expectations or who don't consistently enforce them are, in effect, training their students to disregard them. If there is turmoil in this classroom, the problem is much more with the teacher than the students.

Effective teachers take time to practice routines and transitions early in the year, particularly with younger students. While this will take class time up front, experienced teachers know that in the long run much more time is gained since students will move quickly and efficiently between activities. Teachers who are too concerned about curriculum to teach necessary routines will experience frustration as the year goes on.

Teachers who do these things well also consider the arrangement of the room and how even the furniture will best support learning and classroom culture. Wisdom is required here, since classes of students vary from year to year or class to class, and what might work very well for one group of students might be inviting trouble in another. 

When it comes to enforcing classroom or school rules, effective teachers know how to do this in a way that communicates to the student that the teacher is 'on their side'. The consequence (whatever it may be) is necessary and is, in fact, for the student's good. Teachers who stay calm and who doggedly refuse to take disobedience personally are in a much better position to communicate graciously (if firmly) to the student.

When conflicts happen--and they will--effective teachers are able to avoid a mere behavior modification approach,which can work for the short term, but rather are able to get to heart issues with students, which is the only way to make classroom discipline gospel-centered. What is needed is internal motivation rather than external conformity. An effective classroom culture should be one that explicitly and implicitly teaches and supports the cultivation of wisdom, virtue, and godliness of students and teachers.

Classroom Culture/Management Checklist:
-The teacher's interactions with students are mutually respectful
-The teacher communicates predictability and support to students
-The teacher has carefully thought out and clearly communicated instructions for routines and transitions
-The teacher has considered how room arrangement may support learning and classroom management
-Students practice classroom routines
-The teacher is consistent in enforcing school and class rules in such a way that students know that the teacher is on their side, wanting them to be successful
-The teacher does not take conflicts personally
-The teacher communicates frequently with parents, and works together with parents on behavior and character issues

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"...the office shows the man: for just as vases that are cracked cannot readily be detected so long as they are empty, yet if liquid be put into them, show at once just where the defect lies--in like manner corrupt and depraved minds rarely disclose their defects save when they are filled with authority."
Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Effective classroom teachers successfully integrate four critical skills into their classroom:

1. Content Planning
2. Assessment

3. Instruction
4. Classroom Culture/Management

In this post, I'll describe some of the elements of effective assessment.

Excellent teachers know that it is not enough to have great plans, interesting content, and engaging activities. Teachers need to check frequently to see if students are understanding the learning, that they are achieving the learning targets for the class. The purpose of this on-going assessment is to help the teacher focus the students on the learning, with the goal that students would become more self-directive. All education is essentially self-education, and teachers can move students toward this goal by giving frequent feedback about where students are with respect to the desired learning, and then showing students how to use that feedback to improve their learning.

This assessment must be involuntary—that is, teachers need to check on all students, frequently, whether or not these students wished to be checked on. It is not enough to simply ask the class as a whole “do you understand?” or “are there any questions?” Frequently students will not know whether they understand—they may think they do when in fact they don’t. Some students will cheerfully volunteer to answer every attempt at ‘broadcast’ assessment. So, teachers need to build in means of checking on all students’ understanding on a regular basis. There are a wide variety of quick and easy ways to do this: cold calling, exit passes, summary writing, pair-shares, sticky notes, short quizzes, white boards and more. Written assignments and more complex assignments also provide opportunities for teachers to check student understanding. What’s important is that this occurs during the learning so that the teacher and the student have time to act on it, to make adjustments or even reteach, if needed. Feedback given at the end of a unit of learning in the form of a test is only minimally useful.

This feedback is valuable for teachers, but it is also important for students to receive feedback on where they are in their learning. Teachers should frequently give feedback to students that is descriptive and specific. Expressions like “excellent!” or “good job!”, although perhaps gratifying to students, don’t tell students what they are doing well and what they need to improve in order to reach the learning target. (Interestingly, praise, when not connected to the learning, can actually hinder learning. Students can get the message that they are ‘smart’ and that becomes their focus—proving they’re start—rather than maintaining a mindset toward learning that emphasizes taking risks toward growth.) An effective practice is to separate grades from the descriptive feedback as much as possible, as students will often be distracted by the grade and will tend to ignore the comments.

As mentioned above, students should be given time to do something with the feedback they receive. They should be given time and be directed to focus revision on a few items of quality at a time. There should be time scheduled for students to self-reflect about their learning, to set specific goals, to track and share their learning. All of this takes precious class time, time teachers may not think they have for such luxuries. But the long-term pay-off of prioritizing these things is that students will increasingly take responsibility for their own learning, and that is, ultimately, what we’re hoping for.

Assessment Checklist
-There is frequent and involuntary checking for understanding (formative assessment)
-Feedback to students is descriptive and specific
-Students are given time to act on the information from the formative assessment
-Students have opportunities for self-assessment and goal setting
-Students are directed to focus revisions on a few items of quality at a time
-Students are given time for self-reflection about their learning
-Students are required to track their own learning
-Students are given opportunities to share their learning

From the Commonplace Book: Virtue and Eloquence

"...a virtuous course of live would seem to me preferable to one even  of the most distinguished eloquence. But in my opinion, the two are combined and inseparable. For I am convinced that no one can be an orator who is not a good man; and, even if anyone could, I should be unwilling that he should be."
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

From the Commonplace Book: The Teacher as Host

"The truly great teacher is the host of a party, a symposium if you will, where the guests of honor are the students as well as thinkers of the past such as Homer, Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Boethius, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare."    
Grant Horner, John Milton: Classical Learning and the Progress of Virtue

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Effective classroom teachers successfully integrate four critical skills into their classroom:

1. Content Planning

2. Assessment
3. Instruction
4. Classroom Culture/Management

In this post, I'll describe some of the elements of effective instruction.

Effective teachers make sure that classroom activities engage all students. There are some students in every class who would love to answer every question and do every demonstration. Their hands are constantly in the air, enthusiastically waving. It's tempting to let this enthusiasm have its way, and, of course, there are many other students in the room who would be content to have it so. This must not be. All students need to know that all of them will be expected to participate in class. Cold calling is one way to do this. The best procedure is to ask a question, pause for all to consider, and then call on a student (by name, through drawing a stick with their names, etc. In the case of sticks I'd recommend putting them back into the holder so that students don't think they're finished.) Teachers should set up all individual and group activities in such a way that all students must participate. One example is to have all students write three review questions, then have students work in small groups to refine their questions down to a few. This way all students are engaged. Making sure that activities are meaningful and challenging is another way to encourage engagement. 

Effective teachers use frequent models of strong and weak work. These examples help students to come to hold a similar understanding of quality that the teacher has. When students, working individually and in small groups, apply rubrics and scoring guides to the models this makes this understanding even greater. 

In effective classrooms students are required to do most of the work. A book I read a few years ago was titled 'Never Work Harder Than Your Students', and that really says it all. Teachers should constantly monitor the ratio of talking or other work done in the classroom. Students should talk more and teachers talk less. When teachers must talk, they should look to employ more questions, helping to guide students to understanding. They should use other students, as well, drawing in the class when possible for the solution, rather than jumping in to supply the answer. I have observed classroomw where the teacher put on an impressive and interesting display of their knowledge--and the students contentedly observed in quiet, with virtually nothing expected of them but to write an occasional note. Of course there are times when the teacher will instruct directly, but the general rule is that students should always work harder than the teacher. 

When teaching a new skill many effective teachers employ an I Do, We Do, Y'all Do, You Do approach. This gradually moves from demonstration to guided practice, to partner or small group practice, to individual practice, all with feedback along the way from the teacher or other students. 

Instruction Checklist

-All students are consistently involved in class activities
-Activities are meaningful, that is, challenging and thoughtful at the appropriate level
-Models of strong and weak work are used to make the elements of quality clear
-Rubrics or scoring guides are clear and communicated in advance of the learning (students may help in designing)
-Students practice with models and rubrics
-Students are required to do most of the work during the lesson; students talk more than the teacher during the lesson
-The teacher employs I Do, We Do, Y'all Do, You Do steps when introducing a new skill
-The teacher's movements in the classroom support instruction

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"Not everyone is obliged to excel in philosophy, medicine, or the law, nor are all equally favored by nature; but all are destined to live in society and to practice virtue."
           Vittorino de Feltre (1378-1446)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Effective classroom teachers generally excel at implementing four foundational skills. There practices are critical to establishing a classroom culture that is focused on learning. The four foundations are:

1. Content Planning

2. Instruction
3. Assessment
4. Classroom Culture/Management

Content is obviously central to the classroom. The concepts or skills to be taught direct the work of the classroom. When planning, effective teachers start with the goal. They plan units and daily lessons 'backward', that is, they consider what the end goals are for the learning and then design the learning to support those goals. As teachers write daily lessons they want to be sure to construct them with student learning in mind. What matters in the classroom is not what the teacher does but what students will do and learn. So, learning targets for the lesson are written with student action central. A quality learning target or objective is specific and as assessable as possible. For example, "describe" is better than "observe", and "explain" better than "appreciate". The key is that teacher and students can all know what learning looks like and are able to assess it as specifically as possible.

Learning targets should be shared with students as often as possible, as this provides context for learning, which makes learning more lasting and effective. As well, effective teachers keep an eye on the kinds of targets they write to be sure that classroom objectives reach the full range of academic and intellectual work (using Bloom's or some other taxonomy). This ensures that students are challenged, appropriate to their age.

Planning for teaching often requires teachers to do additional reading and preparation. Effectiveteachers don't rely on their previous lesson plans and knowledge but are always seeking to learn something new about their content. This enables them to have flexibility with the content, to make adjustments on the run, make new applications, to redirect student questions, to restate concepts in different ways, etc. 

Finally, pre-teaching planning includes thinking about the beginning and ending of lessons, keeping in mind that these times are often the most memorable for students. Effective teachersbuild frequent review into lessons, often at the end of a lesson, but taking advantage of any periods of time that might otherwise be wasted. They also take time to make connections for students to future learning.

Content Planning Checklist

-Units are planned 'backward'
-Daily lessons are planned 'backward'
-Learning targets are shared with students
-Learning targets are put into contact of the class for students
-The teacher demonstrates facility with content, is able to make adjustments on the run, to redirect questions, to state concepts in different ways
-Review is built into the lesson
-Connections to future learning are made at the end of the lesson

Friday, September 4, 2015

Extra screen time drags down students' grades

Extra screen time drags down teenagers' exam grades, study finds

Teenagers who spend an extra hour a day surfing the internet, watching TV or playing computer games risk performing two grades worse in exams than their peers who don't, according to research by British scientists.
In a study of more than 800 students aged 14 and 15, researchers from Cambridge University also found that physical activity had no effect on academic performance.
Since this was a prospective study, in which the researchers followed the pupils over time to see how different behaviors affected performance, the scientists said it was reasonable to conclude that too much screen time reduced academic achievement.
"We only measured this.. in Year 10, but this is likely to be a reliable snapshot of participants' usual behavior, so we can reasonably suggest that screen time may be damaging to a teenager's grades," said Kirsten Corder of Cambridge's Centre for Diet and Activity Research, who co-led the work.
The study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, found the average amount of screen time per day was four hours.
An extra hour in front of the TV or online at age 14-and-a-half was linked with 9.3 fewer exam points at age 16 -- equivalent to two grades, for example from a B to a D. Two extra hours was linked to 18 fewer points.
Unsurprisingly, the results also showed that pupils doing an extra hour of daily homework and reading scored better - getting on average 23.1 more points than their peers.
The scientists said further research was needed to confirm the effect conclusively, but advised parents worried about their children's grades to consider limiting screen time.
In a breakdown analysis of different screen activities, the researchers found that TV came out as the most detrimental in terms of exam performance.
The article:


Thursday, September 3, 2015

From the Commonplace Book: Nature and Education

"For the fallen, the long process of 'regaining to know God aright' begins, logically and naturally, as we begin to explore the world around us. While the created world neither fully reveals nor contains Milton's God, respectful and rational investigation of the creatures remains the sacred ground upon which the divine presence manifests itself."

          Richard DuRocher, Milton Among the Romans

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Three Study Strategies for Long-Term Learning

Students frequently employ four familiar, but not necessarily effective, methods when studying. Instead, teachers should guide students through instruction and planning to become more adept at some less familiar but more effective strategies for learning.

Many students use some typical, but ineffective, strategies for studying:
·        Reading assigned text
·        Marking with highlighter or pencil
·        Reviewing the  material a day or so before test
·        Rereading what was highlighted or noted previously

The trouble with these methods is that when students depend on them, without adjustment, they will let them down. The result of relying on these strategies along might be some short-term success, but ultimately the long-term memory and understanding is missing. Students have crammed a kind of familiarity about the material, but haven’t done what is needed to make sure they have understood—which is necessary for long-term retention.

Of course, reading and marking (or better, note taking) is an important step toward understanding. But there are three simple strategies students can use to ensure that their study time is more efficient and more effective for the long-term.

1. Dialogue With the Author
I encourage my students to engage mentally with the author as they are reading. Particularly when reading non-fiction, such as a history text, it’s important for students to conduct a kind of mental discussion. They shouldn’t read passively, or simply let the author ‘lecture’ to them in print. Indeed, even during a lecture students should be asking (silently) questions, such as:
-what is the author saying is most important about this subject?
-why did the author choose that particular word or term to describe that action or event?
-how does what the author is saying relate to what I’ve learned previously?
-what’s the writer’s worldview? Does it influence how he/she presents this material?
-do I think what the author is saying is accurate? Do I have questions about this text?
Obviously, the student will want to balance asking questions with paying attention to the author, but what’s important is that students develop the habit of being active, participatory readers. This will make understanding and long-term memory of the material much more likely.

2. Distributed Practice Time
Cramming for hours right before a test can actually be an effective strategy—if all you care about is short-term memory. Students who cram may pass the test, but they will almost always forget what they supposedly ‘learned’ in a very short time. More effective is dividing the studying necessary over a longer period of time. Given the same amount of time, students who spread this out over several days or weeks or months rather than cramming will experience much longer retention. Cramming simply doesn’t work if learning means being able to remember and apply what was learned several weeks or months later.

3. Practice Testing
Trying to remember, and the work that that requires, can actually be more beneficial for memory and learning than simply rereading. Rereading material, while a good practice, can give a false sense of assurance because terms and ideas seem familiar. Of course, familiarity is not the same thing as knowing. Take away the text and quiz the student—then you’ll see what they really know. Students can self-test through flash cards, summarizing, etc. Teachers can build short but frequent quizzing into their class schedule. This immediate feedback has been shown to result in significant memory gains.

The goal of learning is long-term memory and application. As teachers, we want students to retain what we’ve taught them and to be able to use that knowledge in other contexts and for others means, sometimes years down the road. By teaching students to use the very simple strategies described above we will help them to be more likely to learn better and to retain longer the things we work so hard to teach them.

(adapted from Daniel Willingham, Educational Leadership, October 2014)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cicero and Conversation in a Virtual Age

In classical and Christian schools we have placed an emphasis on teaching students to speak confidently and persuasively. Beginning at a young age, even in Kindergarten, students make presentations in the classroom, perform at school assemblies, and memorize poems. In high school speeches and debates are a regular part of the curriculum. Students grow in their comfort with speaking in public and in their ability to support or defend the cause of truth beautifully, wisely and effectively. The culmination is the presentation of their senior project, or poiesis, in which they explain the contribution their project has made to their community. Our emphasis on rhetoric is designed to do all of this, and it is one of our main distinctives. 

We are not given the gift of speech just to make speeches, however, but also to talk with one another. There is more to rhetoric than presentation, speech and debate.  Besides this public oratory there is also private and conversational rhetoric. Conversation is one of the two great powers of speech, and while it is just as important, it tends to be neglected.  The great Roman orator Cicero distinguished conversation from other kinds of oratory and commended certain principles for guiding it. In our age where virtual but ultimately empty interactions threaten to degrade actual conversation, we would do well to work to recover them. 

Cicero, in his 'On Duties', wrote, "let oratory find place in the arguments of courts, popular assemblies, and the Senate; let conversation have its scope in smaller circles, in the discussion of ordinary affairs, in the gathering of friends...". For Cicero conversation had great importance and, like more public oratory, he believed it couldn’t be pursued effectively without thought and purpose. The character of those engaged in conversation plays a central role, as it does in oratory. Thought for the others involved is paramount--conversation is done with others not to them or in spite of them. Subjects discussed should be mutually interesting and they should not include, of course, those not present if the conversation could damage their reputation. Here is a passage from Cicero:

Let then conversation, in which the followers of Socrates are pre-eminent, be easy, and by no means prolix; let politeness be always observed, nor must one debar others from their part, as if he had sole right to be heard; but, as in all things else, so in social intercourse, let him regard alternation as not unfair. Then, too, let him at the outset consider on what sort of subjects he is talking; if on serious things, let him show due gravity; on amusing, grace. Especially let him take heed lest his conversation betray some defect in his moral character, which is most frequently the case when the absent are expressly ridiculed or spoken of slanderously and malignly, with the purpose of injuring their reputation. 

Cicero further discussed what sort of subjects are to be talked about, and then adds some important advice about when it is time to stop and go home!

For the most part, conversation relates to private affairs, or politics, or the theory and practice of the arts. Pains must then be taken that, if the conversation begins to wander off to other subjects, it be recalled to these. Yet reference must be had to the persons present; for we are not all interested in the same things, at all times, and in a similar degree. We should always observe, also, the length of time to which the pleasure of conversation extends, and as there was reason for beginning, so let there be a limit at which there shall be an ending.

In our Protocol training for students we emphasize "being at ease" in any social situation. The purpose of this is so students may "put others at ease"--that is, the focus is on loving others in the social details. We seek to help our students be socially graceful but, more importantly, to be socially gracious. We engage in conversation for our own enjoyment, it is true, but we must always remember to put others first. In these things Cicero, value him though we do, is not our ultimate authority. Scripture repeatedly admonishes us to "let your conversation be seasoned with salt", to "build one another up", to avoid slander and gossip and the like. We are to consider others more highly than ourselves, and to serve others, even in our conversations. 

In our high school classrooms our teaching methods support this goal, as well. Besides the speeches and debates mentioned above, students spend a significant amount of time engaged in conversation--on purpose and on the curriculum. Our emphasis on seminar-style discussions (which we call harkness discussions) are one way this is done. Students talk with each other on sometimes complicated or even controversial topics in a manner that is respectful but with an aim to uncover truth. Along the way the community of the classroom is built up in love. This takes deliberate training--how to ask questions, how to support a position, how to disagree respectfully if necessary, how to move the conversation along when needed, how to get quieter students involved, etc. These discussions are not just a method to get students to think out and express their learning, but they are a means to teach important social and rhetorical skills at the same time. 

We may talk by nature but we can only have conversations by training. Principles and practice are needed, underpinned by a realization that what is being learned is very important. Conversation may not be in jeopardy of being completely eradicated by virtual kinds of communication, but there is a strong likelihood that our ubiquitous use of electronic forms may significantly damage the way we interact with others in conversation. The harsh and thoughtless (to say the least) manner in which many people, even Christians, address one another on line, especially in that worst-of-all-possible-worlds, the anonymous comment, should make anyone who cares about our society very concerned. Is this the way we talk to each other now? Let us pray that it won't come to that. But if it isn't we must become more intentional about countering it, finding allies along the way, even in first century Rome. And we must give more thought and time to considering what we say and how we say it.