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In our blog, McREL’s expert researchers, evaluators, and veteran educators synthesize information gleaned from our research and blend it with best practices gathered from schools near and far to bring you insightful and practical ideas that support changing the odds of success for you and your students.

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Research spotlights an invisible barrier to student success: Fate control

iStock_000012787465_SmallHalf a century ago, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University set out to determine if and how schools could counteract the effects of poverty on student success. Hopeful that the findings would provide evidence to support War on Poverty education policies, policy makers and even President Lyndon Johnson were shocked when the study found that the effect of non-school factors outweighed school characteristics, leading researcher James Coleman to conclude that schools provide “no opportunity at all” to even the playing field for impoverished and minority students.

However, as McREL’s Bryan Goodwin explains in the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, many people overlooked one powerful finding that still has implications today: A single “student attitude factor” (or lack thereof) showed a stronger relationship to achievement than all of the school factors combined.

In the decades since, Goodwin adds, researchers have built on this finding, showing that academic success is largely based on how much control students think they have over their ability to succeed—or their “fate control.” Internals, or those who believe they can shape their futures by their actions, are more likely to succeed academically than externals, who see their circumstances as shaped by forces out of their control.

The good news for educators, Goodwin says, is that they can help externals develop new beliefs about themselves by providing small opportunities to set and achieve goals, which allow them to see the connection between effort and results—and doing so in a safe, secure, predictable learning environment.

You can read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.

From cornfields to classrooms: Why am I doing this?

Learning Objectives Infographic

Learning Objectives Infographic CLICK TO ENLARGE

For five summers as a teenager growing up in Iowa, I worked as a corn detasseler, walking up and down rows and rows of corn, finding each tassel, grabbing it, pulling it off, and throwing it to the ground. When I applied for the job, I didn’t know why the corn needed to be detasseled, I only knew that I would earn $3.35 per hour. After I was hired and given good direction, I learned that it was extremely important for me to do my job correctly or the plants would not cross-pollinate and the crop would fail. While this might seem like a simple objective, it made my job more meaningful and provided me with both the information and motivation I needed to help the crops flourish.

Similarly, our students need to have clear objectives in the classroom so that they understand what they should be learning and why it is important.

It’s crucial that teachers communicate clearly with students about learning objectives. In the Framework for Instructional Planning found in the second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) (2012), Setting Objectives is one of the non-negotiables within the first component, Creating the Environment for Learning. CITW offers four recommendations for setting objectives:

  • Set learning objectives that are specific but not restrictive.
  • Communicate the learning objectives to students and parents.
  • Connect the learning objectives to previous and future learning.
  • Engage students in setting personal learning objectives.

To gauge how well this strategy is being used in classrooms, many schools use our Power Walkthrough classroom observation system, which has templates for the nine CITW strategies and other instructional goals. Let’s look at a real-life example from a school that tracks learning objectives during their informal observations.

Figure 1

Figure 1 – CLICK TO ENLARGE

In Figure 1, you can clearly see that this school’s teachers are posting objectives 70.1% of the time, and, 60.5% of the time, those objectives are based on standards. As an instructional coach or principal at this school, while looking at this data, you would presumably be pleased with how the teachers are committed to the Setting Objectives category. In providing feedback to your teachers, you might mention that they should take the time to reference the objective throughout the lesson so that students clearly understand what they should be learning. And you might advise them to help students become invested in personalizing the objectives to understand why they’re learning the content, and then teach them how to monitor their learning.

But, what Figure 1 doesn’t reveal is how well students actually understand and relate to the learning objectives.

To determine this, McREL recommends interviewing students during classroom walkthroughs, asking them (in student-friendly language) to state the what and why of the assigned task.

Figure 2

Figure 2 – CLICK TO ENLARGE

Again using Power Walkthrough, when the school did this, they found that too many of their students struggled to articulate the learning objective (see Figure 2). This was extremely valuable data that sparked collaborative conversations to determine the cause of the disconnect and what could be done to improve.

When students connect with and personalize the learning objective, they can better understand the relevance of the learning objective.

Just as it benefited me all those years ago to see the connection between detasseling the corn and the success of the crop, so too will students benefit when they understand the connections between what they are doing in class, what they are learning, and why they need to know it.

How are you going to motivate your students to make learning relevant to their lives and become invested in the why?

6a010536aec25c970b01a3fcb5866e970bLisa Maxfield, Program Manager, serves as the manager of McREL’s EmpowerED Suite which includes the Power Walkthrough® informal walkthrough software. She has been working with the Power Walkthrough software since its inception in 2007, and she works closely with the developers on enhancements and improvements.

Model lesson plans offer a lifeline to new teachers

Portrait of a happy young teacher with her students in the backgroundThe learning curve for first-year teachers is notoriously steep: Not only are they having to keep up with the content they’re teaching, but they’re also figuring out how to deliver it well, assess it right, manage the classroom and their students’ behavior, and design effective lesson plans. Striking just one of these things from their list, research shows, can go a long way toward supporting and retaining novice teachers.

In the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, McREL’s president and CEO Bryan Goodwin shows how providing well-designed lesson plans is a simple yet powerful way to improve teacher performance—among both new and struggling teachers.

A 2016 study of middle school math teachers, for example, found that when one group was given model lesson plans along with webinars and opportunities to network with other teachers and the plans’ developers, their students showed higher achievement—a 0.08 effect size, or the equivalent of moving students from a classroom with an average teacher to one at the 80th percentile of quality. Moreover, these effects were doubly beneficial for weaker teachers.

Goodwin notes that, while teachers shouldn’t be spoon-fed lesson plans, providing them during crucial times in teachers’ development can allow them to get their footing and feel more successful, and perhaps keep more of them in the classroom instead of fleeing the profession.

You can read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.

Career Readiness: What does it really mean and how do we get there?

Teacher helping two students build a robotic arm in their design and technology lessonSchool systems across the country are being pushed to re-think their approach to Career Technical Education (CTE) and what it means to be “career-ready.” Job markets are continually changing, and it’s become more critical than ever that secondary students are prepared for college and career upon graduation. While many educators have equated career readiness to college readiness, others have begun to take a more nuanced approach, understanding that not all careers—like students—fit the same mold (Conley & McGaughy, 2012; DeWitt, 2012).

In 2015, ACT refined its definitions of the types of academic skills required for work: Work readiness skills are the academic skills required of all students to be prepared for the workplace; career readiness skills are those particular academic skills needed to work in a given industry; and job readiness skills are the particular academic skills needed for a specific job.

At McREL, our review of CTE-related certifications, standards, curriculum documents, and textbooks in nearly a dozen industries and career pathways has confirmed that the academic content required by various industries and jobs can differ greatly.

While conducting alignment studies between CTE content and academic standards in math, science, and language arts, we found that, while a few academic skills are required by most careers, many needed academic skills are specific to an industry or job position. In some ways, this finding is not terribly surprising. It is easy to recognize that, for example, a career in nursing requires far more knowledge of biology than does a career in plumbing. Yet, both nurses and plumbers use measuring tools and solve complex problems. And, further, the type of biology knowledge needed to begin a career differs significantly between optometry and dentistry.

While different career paths require many different skills, some academic content is fundamental to working in most, if not all, industries. Across industries, technical vocabulary and workplace jargon (what the Common Core calls “domain-specific” words) are key to understanding technical content and being able to communicate effectively with colleagues. In math, many jobs require students to apply business math, measure, and work with decimals, fractions, and percentages.

While academic skills such as learning vocabulary and measuring may not be among the most rigorous identified by college- and career-ready standards, when students apply these basic academic understandings and skills to workplace situations, the task difficulty level can increase significantly. The depth of understanding required to solve real-world problems or make contextual decisions increases as students draw on learned knowledge and skills. For example, it may not be difficult for a culinary student to measure ingredients while following the steps in a written recipe, but adjusting or adapting that recipe will demand a deeper understanding of how to divide fractions, as well as understand how the proportion among ingredients interacts with temperature and other elements of cooking to create a delicious dish. Many educators and organizations have identified the importance of these critical thinking skills in the workplace (For more on this, refer to the additional resources at the end of this post).

The good news is that the ability to think critically and problem solve in real-world contexts is not only highly valued by employers, but is also an effective way to motivate and engage all students. Captivated learners enjoy working toward tangible goals by creating real products and delivering services. Additionally, McREL’s research-supported model of effective school systems finds student curiosity central to meeting high expectations for student learning, as illustrated in our most recent whitepaper, The Road Less Traveled.

Ultimately, as career training programs and academic education systems work together to prepare students for their future careers, it’s important that we acknowledge the differences among learning benchmarks that mark a variety of career pathways. While a solid foundation of academic skills will pave the way for students to enter a variety of career fields, it’s also vitally important that we recognize students’ ambitions and design learning opportunities that engage them in rigorous ways with content relevant to their career goals. If we design programs that address academic skills within real-world projects and learning opportunities, not only will we better prepare our students for their future careers, but we will also motivate them to learn more. For now, this might be the road less traveled but, in the long run, what we really want is for students to get the most mileage possible from their education, regardless of which road they take.

Additional Resources

ACTE. (2010).   What is “Career Ready”? Association for Career and Technical Education: Alexandria, VA. Available from https://www.acteonline.org/general.aspx?id=1964#.V8RNYWfrtD8

Conley, D. T. (2012). A complete definition of college and career readiness. Educational Policy Improvement Center: Eugene, OR.  Available from http://www.epiconline.org

Mattern, K.; Burrus, J.; Camara, W.; O’Connor, R.; Hanson, M.A., Gambrell, J.; Casillas, A.; & Bobek, B. (2014). Broadening the Definition of College and Career Readiness: A Holistic Approach. ACT Research Report Series. Iowa City, IA. Available from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED555591.pdf

Citations

Conley, D. T., & McGaughy, C. (2012). College and career readiness: Same or different? Educational Leadership, 69(7), 28. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1008639706?accountid=144346

DeWitt, S. (2012). Career readiness: Has its time finally come? Techniques: Connecting Education and Careers (J3), 87(3), 16-19. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1238187763?accountid=144346

SusanRyan_2014_webMcREL consultant Susan Ryan conducts curriculum alignment reviews, and develops/revises academic content standards in language arts, social studies, and career and technical education areas for districts, state agencies, and other organizations. Prior to joining McREL, she was a high school language arts teacher.

Four tips for using nonlinguistic representations

nonlinguistic learningToday’s learners are continually fed linguistically presented information, such as lectures, videos, directions, math chants, and reading assignments. Most opportunities for students to interact with peers happen primarily with words.

It’s all too easy, while employing various aspects of instructional design and delivery, to overlook ways that students might also engage in learning through nonlinguistics.

When used intentionally and consistently, nonlinguistic representations are powerful instructional tools that can have a positive effect on student achievement. They provide varied ways for students to process new information without solely relying on language.

McREL’s analysis of research for the second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) provides these research-based classroom recommendations for use of nonlinguistic representations:

  1. Use graphic organizers.
  2. Use physical models or manipulatives.
  3. Generate mental pictures.
  4. Use pictures, illustrations, and pictographs.
  5. Engage in kinesthetic activities.

Tips for engaging in nonlinguistic learning

  1. Consistently use each type of nonlinguistic representation.
    It’s important that students learn several ways to represent information nonlinguistically. This means providing students at every grade level with multiple opportunities to use kinesthetic movement, draw pictures and pictographs, use their senses and emotions to form solid mental images, be fluid in the use of several graphic organizers, and create or use physical models to denote their learning. Consistent use is key; if you use these strategies only occasionally, it will limit students’ ability to grasp the possibilities associated with learning both linguistically and nonlinguistically, preventing them from developing automaticity in their use of all the representations.
  2. Help students engage in conversations with peers to explain their choice and use of a nonlinguistic representation.
    When students engage in peer discourse to explain why they chose a certain nonlinguistic representation for the content being studied, they deepen their understanding of the content and are better able to make connections between types of information. Peer conversations help students elaborate on their learning; they describe their thinking and listen to others do the same, helping them extend and apply their learning. When students engage in peer and classroom conversations, it becomes easier to expose and correct any confusion about or misinterpretations of the content. Using sentence stems and guiding questions may also help students become more proficient in speaking with, listening to, and understanding one another.
  3. Students can use multiple nonlinguistic representations to learn or represent a concept.
    It would be a mistake to believe that students should select only one nonlinguistic strategy to represent a piece of content. Nothing could be further from the truth. When students are encouraged to combine and use multiple nonlinguistics to represent their learning, the probability of deeper understanding and longer retention increases. For example, students learning the vocabulary word defenestrate, which means to throw something out the window, might kinesthetically demonstrate the word, followed by sketching what it looks like to defenestrate. Ultimately, students should be given time to create a mental picture of how they look defenestrating an object.
  4. Students should be encouraged to use nonlinguistic representations on their own.
    Nonlinguistic representations can be used to learn new vocabulary words, take notes, capture information along a timeline, symbolize information that is difficult to see—such as parts of an atom or solar systems—depict historical events, connect new learning to previously learning information, and demonstrate understanding beyond linguistics. When students consistently represent their learning using a nonlinguistic approach, they internalize useful methods and multiple ways to process and make sense of new information. Ultimately, the goal is to create a desire in students to use these learning tools without teacher insistence.

Applying the tips to instruction

As with the implementation of any instructional strategy, teachers who wish to improve student learning need to intentionally plan for and consistently use nonlinguistic representations in their lesson design and delivery. Setting a purpose for using these important instructional strategies, along with a willingness to stay the course in their application, will go a long way to establishing routine use for teachers and the students they have the privilege of serving.

Bj StoneConsulting director Dr. Bj Stone is a co-author of the second editions of McREL’s Classroom Instruction that Works (2012) and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2012). A former middle and high school science teacher and central office administrator, she now trains, coaches, and consults with K–12 educators and district leaders on research-based instructional strategies, vocabulary instruction, curriculum development, and assessment design.

 

Additional resources

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement, 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

 

Today’s “high tech” students need “high touch” learning environments

texting during classWe’ve all seen it: A group of teenagers sitting together, perhaps at a restaurant or the mall, but all of them glued to their phones, barely interacting with the friends right next to them. As common as this sight has become, it still gives us pause. What, you may wonder, is this doing to our kids?

In September’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin takes a look at the effects of our “plugged in” culture on students and their teachers. One clear effect, he finds, is how students relate to others: One analysis of more than 70 student surveys, for example, found that empathy among college students is at its lowest level since 1979—a whopping 40 percent lower.

Not surprisingly, researchers and educators alike have noted a loss in the ability of students to have deep, empathic conversations. In an article for The Atlantic, one such teacher in Kentucky described how, in a classroom interview activity, most of his high school students were unable to move beyond the scripted questions and engage in more spontaneous, authentic dialogue. His solution? He asked his students to record their conversations on their smartphones, watch them later, and self-assess their conversation skills.

Teachers need to keep in mind, too, the importance of modeling empathy. Goodwin notes a recent Stanford study, in which middle school math teachers who engaged in an exercise on the importance of empathy cut in half the percentage of student suspensions over the school year (from 9.6% to 4.8%).

Today more than ever, teachers need to show and model empathy and provide opportunities for students to make real human connections, Goodwin concludes. While we can’t expect kids to give up their phones altogether, we can help them balance their “high tech” lives with “high touch” learning environments.

You can read Bryan’s entire Research Matters column here.

Posted by McREL International.

Four fallacies that keep us from finishing what we start

School leadership in a meetingOne of the major pitfalls of systemic education improvement is this: Too many schools and districts begin a promising new initiative only to toss it aside before it has a chance to become part of the organizational culture and make a difference. Within this graveyard of discarded initiatives are thousands upon thousands of dollars spent on professional development, curriculum programs, innovative processes, and unfulfilled hopes for better student achievement.

In our never-ending quest to locate the next “shiny object” cure for our challenges, we sometimes overlook an important facet of school and student improvement that is fully within our control: the power to finish what we started.

Why do we so often fail to bring our many important initiatives to fruition? Part of the answer lies in addressing the fallacies that often form our belief system.

Fallacy #1: Believing that when people know what to do they will do it. There’s difference between knowing what to do, and knowing how to do it. Without a step-by-step plan, modeling, guidance, and good descriptive feedback, very few people will take what they have learned and be able to apply it with accuracy, intentionality, and precision in a sustained manner.

Fallacy #2: Believing that fear, facts, and force will overcome people’s resistance to carry an initiative to full implementation. People around the world have known for decades that smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet, and a sedentary life greatly reduces one’s longevity. Yet only one person in 10 makes the lifestyle changes necessary for living longer and maintaining a high level of health. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink offers a more promising approach: Elaborate on the purpose of implementing the initiative, provide defined autonomy during the process, and assist those implementing until they reach mastery.

Fallacy #3: Believing that doing more will make us better and better. Unfortunately, the opposite has proven to be true. When schools and districts add more work within the school day, the result is that levels of productivity, trust, enthusiasm, and engagement decline. A school-based improvement plan that is built on an overwhelming list of initiatives and their associated activities—and allows little time to implement any one item—is ripe for failure. Taking time to create and maintain a single focus unburdens staff and opens doors for making the initiative “stick” for longer than one academic year.

Fallacy #4: Believing that paying attention to the “what” will bring rapid results without harming the culture. When attention strays from nurturing the culture, everyone suffers. Culture can be described as the personality of an organization, providing the “secret sauce” that keeps an organization healthy and robust. The research base from McREL’s Balanced Leadership® program emphasizes four important leadership responsibilities that require attention when a change, such as implementing an initiative, occurs: communication, input, order, and culture.

Once we accept that these beliefs are false, what else can we do differently to make sure our initiatives are implemented well, and for a sustained period? Here are four important tips:

4 TIPS FOR IMPROVEMENT INITIATIVES-01Over-communicate. During the implementation process, stakeholders need to receive ongoing messages in person, through e-mails, at meetings, and by other formal and informal means.

Ask for input. Allow staff at the school or district level to share their good thinking. Take time to establish a clear message that delineates input from decision-making. Be clear about which person or persons will make the final decision.

Establish order. Providing and maintaining a predictable environment adds stability to the organization, allowing for risk-taking within a safe zone.

Create and preserve a positive culture. Pay close attention to the people and needs within the organization.

Implementation is not an event, but instead is a systems improvement process requiring a well-developed plan that offers assistance along the way, not just a set of marching orders.

Any initiative worth the investment of time and money deserves to cross the finish line.

Bj StoneConsulting director Dr. Bj Stone is a co-author of the second editions of Classroom Instruction that Works (2012) and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2012). A former teacher and central office administrator, Dr. Stone works with K–12 teachers and administrators on research-based instructional strategies, vocabulary instruction, curriculum development, and assessment design.

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