Thursday, November 10, 2016

What Works, at What Cost

Recent research into teacher development has confirmed that great teaching is the result of systematic efforts in schools to provide on-going support of growth. Conferences, guest speakers, and blogs are fine as far as they go, but the real benefits come when teachers work with others consistently on concrete goals with the opportunity for feedback.

Also interesting in this research is the benefit of some specific strategies to improve learning. 
Some popular approaches, such as ability grouping and individualizing instruction, show minimal improvement or worse. Reducing class sizes, though somewhat effective, comes at a prohibitive cost.

What is most effective in improving learning, those items at the top of the chart below, show not just the greatest benefit but also at the least cost. Best of all, these strategies are available to all teachers in all classrooms, and do not require potentially disruptive or expensive restructuring of schedules. 

Of course, not all methods are created equal, and while teaching students to think about their own learning (meta-cognitive strategies) fits very well in classical, Christian education, strategies such as peer tutoring and collaborative group learning require more careful application. If one thinks of peer editing as tutoring, and seminar discussions as collaborative learning, then these become easier to imagine as methods for classical, Christian schools. 

Readers of Chappuis' Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning will recognize the top two strategies as central to the Seven Strategies. 

Image result for what works at what cost economist

Friday, September 23, 2016

The following is a list of representative observations or behaviors developed by Veritas School teachers during our discussion of the 'skilled in managing classroom procedures' item on our Characteristics of Teaching Excellence. 

Examples of Strong Work
·       Quick transitions
·       Automatic transitions and actions
·       Students ready when lesson starts
·       A “do now” is frequently present
·       “Bell ringer” activities
·       Students have a “to” in transition
·       Focus on next subject/activity
·       Routines completed independently without distracting others
·       Entry work—students know exactly what to do when they enter
·       Kindness
·       Cues for attention
·       Succinct, consistent instructions
·       Schedule on board—notated
·       Teacher sets clear expectations
·       Teacher provides clear directions and expectations
·       Organized copies
·       Respect for others in words and actions
·       Reprimands are quick, consistent, and unemotional
·       Crisis happens: teacher flexibly switches tasks or lesson

Examples of Weak Work
·       One student interacts with teacher, all the rest tune out
·       Unclear instructions
·       Variety in procedures
·       Students are dependent on teacher repeating routines
·       Random thinking without clear purpose
·       Tasks done sloppily, slowly
·       Teacher often reminds
·       Coats, pencil sharpeners, water bottles clutter the floor
·       Disorder
·       Students are not held accountable for their own materials
·       No plan for what students do when they arrive to class
·       Teaching without attention
·       Students interrupt
·       Students unprepared when class starts
·       Students are not sure of routines and cause distraction
·       Teacher waits for students to transition
·       Noise
·       Routines change often/not followed
·       No plan for transitions (lack of clear direction)
·       Frequently heard in the classroom: “what do I do now?”
·       Inconsistent correction of behavior
·       Crisis happens: class grinds to a halt until resolved

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Knowing Rightly

In Philippians 1:9, Paul writes that it is his prayer for his readers that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve what is excellent”. This encapsulates well our goal for our students at Veritas. We desire that they will grow in wisdom, virtue, and godliness through their years with us, that their love for God and for others would abound. Ours is not merely an intellectual enterprise, but one in which learning is directed toward an end that is greater than academic achievement. As such, we must consider for what purpose we are learning, and any limits or boundaries of that learning. The purpose of learning is, like everything else in life, to move us closer to loving God with all of our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. Anything else, any other motive, moves us away from that and therefore from our true purpose.

C.S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man about his desire for a kind of learning that “would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself.” He warns against the modern approach to education that tends toward an emphasis on power and control, rather than toward humility and gratitude. In this he is echoing a concern found in sources as different as Augustine, John Milton, and even Mary Shelley. It is an enduring problem because learning, like all things human, can be made to serve and to glorify the living God or it can be bent to serve the whims of fallen man. Too often, of course, the latter has been the case.

We find this problem frequently described using the terms curiositas and studiositas. Not all desire for learning is appropriate or lawful. Curiositas, instead of meaning a healthy wonder, was used describe a vice that desired knowledge that is novel, or an appetite that is prideful and is intently interested in knowing for its own sake, with possessing knowledge in a way that gives control or power to the knower. It is intensly selfish, and while the ‘curious’ in this sense may discover useful things, they do not acknowledge the source. There is no gratitude for the gift or the giver. Augustine writes that the ‘curious’, rather than loving and being thankful for knowledge, actually “hate the unknown because they want everything to be known and thus nothing to remain unknown.” They cannot abide the fact that, ultimately, mastery is impossible. It is simply not possible to fully plumb the depths of the creature let alone the Creator.  Creation is a constant reminder to man that he is a limited and fallible creature. This is hateful to the ‘curious’, and so they end with hating the creator of it all. The object of curiositas is control and power, and its result is ultimately unbelief.

Milton also warns against the desire for knowledge that is inappropriate, that is, not regulated by virtue. In Paradise Lost, Adam and the angel Raphael have a long discussion that ranges from the history of the cosmos to the war in heaven between the faithful and fallen angels. In this discussion, Adam learns much and the angel commends his desire to understand more about God and his ways. But there is a potential danger that Raphael presents to the unfallen Adam. After approving Adam’s questions about the working of the universe, the angel gives this direction: “…the rest from man or angel the Great Architect did wisely to conceal and not divulge his secrets to be scanned by them who ought rather admire.” Milton says here through the angel that people, in our desire to understand, need to be careful that this knowledge leads us to admire God and not just to analyze (‘scanned’). To understand is to worship. This is the essence of ‘studiositas’. It doesn’t mean what we mean by the contemporary word studious, someone who merely has their nose in a book all the time. The ‘studious’, in the older sense, understand that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Studiositas looks for permanence, an eternal perspective that inspires astonishment and joy. It is a virtue that seeks the sublime rather than the mundane, and it leads to devotion, wonder, and gratitude for both the creature and the Creator. The result is worship, and a practical wisdom that both glorifies God and relieves somewhat the present suffering of this fallen world, as an act of service.

Interestingly, the two approaches to learning are well described in Mary Shelley’s early 19th century  novel, Frankenstein. Early in the novel the author contrasts the student (and later creator of the novel’s ‘monster’) Frankenstein’s approach to learning to that of his future wife (his ‘companion’ in this passage):
While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearance of things, I delighted in investigating their causes. The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.

Frankenstein here begins a gradual descent into an uncontrolled vice to possess “the secrets of heaven and earth”, and he pursues this to his “utter and terrible destruction”. In this pursuit he neglects all duty, abandons his friends and his family, and is completely consumed with his desire to know the secrets of life-giving spirit. This neglect, of course, is a clear sign that this activity is destructive, not virtuous. As Frankenstein later says,
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.

Of course, the opinions of a Romantic novelist are not normative for us, but Shelley has the unhappy Frankenstein give an important warning that we would be wise to heed, about an unbridled, unrestrained lust for knowledge and power. At Veritas, we certainly want students to be curious in the contemporary meaning of the term—interested in many things and learning from a sense of wonder—and classical, Christian education is clearly not anti-intellectual. We joyfully recognize that all wisdom and learning flow to us as gracious gifts from the Father. But all of this, whatever we learn, ought to be guided toward the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.

Knowledge is a magnificent, astonishing gift, and accordingly, the pursuit of wisdom should be a virtuous and godly undertaking. The purpose of learning is to grow to love God with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is ‘studiousness’, the satisfying of our desire for the sublime and the great, found only in knowing God rightly.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In our secondary faculty meetings recently we spent several weeks discussing through 'critical incidents'. These were classroom scenarios, some real and some fictitious, that provided opportunities to refine our professional judgment by discussing the situation from many different angles.

What makes the incidents 'critical' is not their seriousness--many were routine or mundane situations--but the critical approach we took to discussing them. They were situations subjected to detailed and systematic critique and analysis. The goal was not preparation for these situations specifically, but the refining of a professional judgment adaptable to the many and varied situations that teachers encounter. 

Below is one of the critical incidents we discussed and the form with the kinds of questions we worked through. The right hand column contains some of the questions and comments that teachers raised during our discussion. 

Critical Incident 7:  The Students With a Concern

A small group of high school students respectfully approached the headmaster with a concern. They said that one of their teachers was addressing what they considered minor problems (e.g. students arriving late to class) in what felt to them to be a public way, thus setting a negative tone for the class as a whole. They wondered what could be done about this situation.

Incident Discussion Comments
and Questions
What happened?
-Students not parents came to Head w/ issue—why?

-Which students? Same as ‘offenders’?

What made it happen?
-Had they discussed this with the teacher?

-Are standards clear? Are procedures clear?

What does it do?

What does it feel like?
-What about our motivations? Irritations?  -Staying objective =supportive?

-How ‘respectful’ were they?

-How do they arrive late--attitude, actions?


What does it mean?
-They think ‘minor'—do they understand the importance of these situations?

Why did (does) it occur?
-Is there something in the school that causes this?

-Are expectations clear?

What  is it an
example of? (e.g. practice, action, etc.)
What additional data is needed?
-What follow up actions?

-Is it only certain students being called out?

-How often?

Does it contribute to the mission? Does it support the POG? Is it classical? Is it Christian?
Is it true? Is it just?
What does it model or shape?
-Was this ‘initiate respectful dialog' (Portrait of Graduate language) or complaining?

-What was the tone?

-What result?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Curated Discussion is a simple but effective activity that involves all students in taking the role of a temporary expert in small groups.

Curated Discussions have some great features:
  • they provide an excellent means of checking for understanding
  • they require the students to do the work of thinking about, organizing, and presenting content
  • they give practice in speaking to, and leading discussions in, a group, and...
  • they require this on a small scale, so that nearly any student will be comfortable with it

Curated Discussions work as follows:
  1. The class is divided up into small groups (3-5). (Four groups of four, or five groups of five, would lead to an ideal composition of the new groups, but this is not in any way necessary.)
  2. The class works with content, organizing it on poster board, on white boards, or large sticky notes place on the walls or boards in the classroom.
  3. After the content is organized in final written form, the groups are re-organized so that one member from each of the original groups is now placed in a new small group. Each of the new groups will have at least one member from each of the original groups. 
  4. The new groups then move about the room, and as they stop at each of the posters the original member of that group is the presenter/expert, who explains the group's thinking.
  5. Students in the new groups should be instructed to ask questions and to discuss the content. What should happen is that the group will engage in a mini-harkness discussion. 
  6. After a few minutes, groups rotate on to the next group's work, until they have discussed them all.
  7. The teacher is able to move about the room, observing and listening to discussions. Anything unclear or incorrect can be noted to be reviewed after the activity is complete, or the teacher can enter into discussion with the groups as needed on the spot. 

Example of a Curated Discussion:
In my Rhetoric I class students apply principles of judicial speech from Aristotle's Rhetoric to three Old Testament crimes (i.e. Caine's murder of Abel, David's adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, and Haman's attempted plot against the Jews--credit to Jim Nance of Logos School).

After having previously worked through one of the situations individually, students were divided up into three groups, and each group was given one of the crimes  to work with.

The groups discussed the main questions for their crime and presented their analysis and answers on large sticky notes, which they placed around the room.

The students were then re-shuffled into new groups, each with at least one representative from the original groups to act as presenter and discussion leader. Where there were more than one from the original groups the students shared the responsibility to lead.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Formative Assessment: from Hand Signals to Harkness Discussions

A previous post  (Formative assessment and Bloom's) connected formative assessment methods with Bloom's taxonomy. The chart below moves from very simple quick-checks such as hand signals to more complex and thorough methods like harkness discussions, again connecting them to Bloom's.

Below I've included only a portion of the chart. The full document is available on Google docs using the link.

Quick Checks
Hand Signals
Knowledge, Comprehension
 White Boards
Writing Prompts
Crystal Ball (prediction)
Take a Stand
         Exit Pass

Pretend a classmate was absent from class today. Tell them what was most important from today’s lesson.
What is the most important thing we learned today.
What concept has been most difficult or confusing in this lesson/section/reading?
Analysis, Evaluation
Write down one question you have about today’s lesson
What down one thing I can do to help you
What do you need to do to prepare for tomorrow’s discussion
What would you like us to review tomorrow?
How did today’s discussion go? What do you need to do to improve for next time?
If you were writing a quiz over today’s material, what are two questions that you would include?
Synthesis, Knowledge
Write down two things you learned today.
Admit Slip
Knowledge, Comprehension
Yesterday’s News (review previous learning)

View the rest of the chart here for sticky notes, graphic organizers, discussions, etc.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Formative Assessments and Bloom's Taxonomy

The chart below attaches some suggested formative assessments to Bloom's taxonomy.
This is part of an on-going discussion at Veritas about frequent and involuntary checking for understanding, and about being sure our learning targets are varied and appropriate.

Key Words (verbs)
Formative Assessments
Knowledge: Recall data or information.
Key Words: define, describe, identify, label, list, match, name, outline, recall, recognize, reproduce, select, state.
Hand signals
White boards
Exit pass
Admit slip
Response cards
3-2-1 card
Comprehension: Understand the meaning, translation, interpolation, and interpretation of instructions and problems. State a problem in one's own words.
Key Words: comprehend, convert, defend, distinguish, estimate, explain, extend, generalize, give an example, infer, interpret, paraphrase, predict, rewrite, summarize, translate.
Admit slip
Exit pass
A tell B/B tell A
Graphic organizer

Application: Use a concept in a new situation or unprompted use of an abstraction. Applies what was learned in the classroom into novel situations in the work place.
Key Words: apply, change, compute, construct, demonstrate, discover, manipulate, modify, operate, predict, prepare, produce, relate, show, solve, use.
Sticky notes
Curated discussion
Graphic organizer
RAFT writing
Crystal ball
Analysis: Separates material or concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood. Distinguishes between facts and inferences.
Key Words: analyze, break down, categorize, compare, contrast, diagram, deconstruct, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, illustrate, infer, outline, relate, select, separate.
Sticky notes
Curated discussion
Prioritized list (sticky)
3-2-1 card
Exit pass
Graphic organizer

Synthesis: Builds a structure or pattern from diverse elements. Put parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure.
Key Words: combine, compile, compose, create, devise, design, explain connections, generate, modify, organize, plan, rearrange, reconstruct, relate, reorganize, revise, rewrite, summarize.
Graphic organizer
RAFT writing
Exit pass
Sticky notes

Evaluation: Make judgments about the value of ideas or materials.
Key Words: appraise, assess, conclude, criticize, critique, defend, describe, discriminate, evaluate,  interpret, justify, support.
Take a stand
Prioritized list (sticky)
Harkness discussion
Value lineup
Exit pass

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"I have the same fault to find also with those who are skilled in oratory and those who are distinguished for their writings and in general with all who have superior attainments in the arts, in the sciences, and in specialized skill. For I know that the majority even of these men have not set their own house in order, that they are insupportable in their private intercourse, that they belittle the opinions of their fellow citizens, and that they are given over to many other grave offences."
Isocrates (436-338 B.C.) 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ten Daily Exercises at the Heart of 16th Century 
Protestant Classical Schools
Johann Sturm was a highly influential German educator during the 16th century Reformation.  He referred frequently in his writings to schools, advisors, and individual teachers and scholars to ‘the method’, a collection of exercises he established in his schools and promoted elsewhere. His chief interest was in developing the liberal arts, and particularly the language arts, in his pre-university students. His goal was the training of a “wise and eloquent piety”.  

To accomplish this he emphasized daily drill in reading, grammar, exposition, writing, and public speaking. Younger students spent most of their time digging deeply into grammar and the meaning of words, while work for older students branched out to include the writing and delivery of frequent public addresses. While significant time in classrooms was no doubt taken up with teacher explanations, ‘the method’ clearly shows that Sturm placed a premium on students being constantly and actively engaged in a variety of exercises meant to develop their ability to think, to write, to discuss, and to speak truthfully, wisely, and persuasively.

Sturm championed these methods in his role as teacher and leader of the movement to found schools in newly-reformed Protestant cities.

1. Psalms
·       singing psalms as a group and as a school
·       3x daily: morning, mid-day, evening
·       Sung and ‘invoked’
2. Daily Recitations
·       students reading aloud
·       read the psalms that are sung, and other important                     pieces (e.g., creeds, prayers, etc.)
·       emphasis on pronunciation and improving voice and              delivery, including body language 
·       short pieces (‘homilies’) to be recited or read
·       brief, serious (e.g., devotional reading)
·       either from written document, or prepared and                      memorized
·       emphasize purity of speech, clarity of meaning
4. Writing
·       daily practice: “never lacking a written composition or pen, or minus a pack of paper”
·       three-fold writing practice:
            -hand-writing (elementary grades, mainly)
  -diaries/journals: note-taking, commonplace books,                   notebooks for language, words, quotations, examples; these are “the custodians of memory”
   -stylistic examples: parts of orations and declamations;              arguments; well-constructed letters and narratives
5. Declamations
·       practice speeches, hypothetical situations; praise,                  censure, etc. (upper progymnasmata and suasoria                  exercises)
·       emphasize knowledge, custom, and eloquence
6. Disputations
        ·      debates and discussions
7. Conversations
·       integration of, and immersion into, Latin whenever                  possible
·       during the day, in class, out of class (e.g., breaks, after            school)
    8. Demonstrations
·       didactic and socratic instruction
·       discourse and demonstration
·       e.g., proofs in mathematics, expositions of literature and        poetry, etc.
    9. Comedies and Tragedies
·       dramatic performances and readings
·       recite passages from memory
·       work in groups to perform, present
    10. Games
·       “All the above exercises should be held with games”
·       use jests and games
·       teach Latin in the games
·       field trips: “Get out of cities to view the fields, and                gardens, to dig our plants, to ask their names”, etc.

For more on Johann Sturm, see Johann Sturm on Education: The Reformation and Humanist Learning, Lewis K. Spitz and Barbara Sher Tinsley, Concordia Publishing House