A year ago, high school teachers across Guam attended a McREL training on how to make STEM come alive for students through underwater robotics; on April 21, that work resulted in a successful first-of-its-kind competition. Teams of students from six high schools used remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) they designed and built to collect and transfer items from a pool, simulating reef cleanup and recovery. “This builds the confidence of our kids as far as STEM careers go,” said STEM Project Director Leah Beth Naholowaa. “There’s a lot of jobs on the island that cannot be filled because we don’t have the workforce, so this program helps create awareness.” A member of the winning team from Tiyan High School will now be able to attend the 2017 MATE International ROV competition in Long Beach, California.
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Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.
In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.
Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?
Countless times throughout my career as a teacher and school leader, I’ve paused to reflect and ask myself a question related to the work at hand. Why did I plan this lesson? Why aren’t some students making any progress? What is that team doing that’s leading to such great results?
Most educators are accustomed to pausing and reflecting on what they’re doing. Similarly, our youngest students ask many more questions over the course of a day than do their high school counterparts. At times, the questions might seem endless. Why does the sun hurt my eyes? Why do we learn math? What will happen if I put these wooden blocks in water? You’ve probably noticed, however, that this innate curiosity often tapers off as children grow older.
Curiosity is contagious. If I want others to be curious, I must, myself, demonstrate curiosity. I read widely and often engage in conversations with people from diverse backgrounds to gain insight into their beliefs about our world. Since my recent move from Australia to the U.S., I’ve connected with people—both inside and outside of education—to learn more about a concept, policy, or even the purpose of an activity or task that was foreign to me. These conversations have been incredibly enlightening, but they’ve also further highlighted for me how important being curious is to learning and improvement, no matter where you are on your path of lifelong learning. Our roles as educators and school leaders require us to continually nurture student curiosity, and also to revive teacher curiosity about their own everyday work.
Emma is an 8th grader who loves horses. For a school project on animal behavior, she learned all about their intelligence and complex social dynamics—and then, with her teacher’s guidance, designed an experiment to see whether horses were smart enough to learn how to read. More specifically, she showed horses one board painted with a circle and another board painted with a rectangle to try to teach them to choose the circle in order to get a treat.
This is personalized learning at its best: Students learn what they need to learn (how to design a science experiment) while getting to choose how to go about it based on their interests (horses) and curiosity (are they smart enough to read?). But, asks McREL’s Bryan Goodwin in his latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, how effective is this kind of learning? Does it work for everyone? What does it take to implement it well?
Goodwin points to some promising studies that show benefits, particularly for low-achieving students. A 2015 RAND Corp. study, for example, compared achievement levels of 11,000 low-income and minority students in personalized learning environments with that of similar peers nationwide and found positive effect sizes for both mathematics (0.27) and reading (0.19). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that students who started off below average on national assessments were scoring above average just three years later.
Who does most of the talking in classrooms? Whether you look to research findings or to your own experience, you’re likely to draw the same conclusion: teachers! In his book, Visible Learning for Teachers (2012), John Hattie laments this fact and exhorts teachers to adopt a mind frame that leads them to choose dialogue, not monologue. But how are teachers to engineer this challenging transformation? Begin with the acknowledgement that dialogue doesn’t just happen: It results from planning and forming teacher-student partnerships to create a shared understanding of the what and why of dialogue. Teacher planning and the purposeful engagement of students in this dialogical partnership are keystones to effective questioning as we define it in our book, Quality Questioning: Research-Based Practice to Engage Every Learner, 2nd Ed. (2017).
Quality questioning is a process that begins with prior planning and involves intentionality in questioning to activate thinking of all students throughout a class period. The “6Ps Framework,” presented in our book, gives definition to this process and serves as a tool for teachers to use in both planning for and reflecting on their questioning practice. Consider the planning questions embedded in the first four components of the Framework: What questions will I ask? How will I engage all students in responding? What cues, prompts, or scaffolds can I offer if students don’t respond completely or correctly? How can I engage students in dialogue that deepens their thinking?
“What makes a student successful?” If you ask students in your classroom this question, how would they respond? Would they say that a student is successful because she is smart, or because the teacher likes him, or because she is lucky? Would students suggest that taking good notes, studying for tests, or doing homework can lead to success?
Often, students attribute success to things that they consider beyond their control, like luck or intelligence. But student effort is often overlooked or minimized as a factor in future success. The more immersed students are in a school and classroom culture where effort is a focus, the more the messages and examples of effort will resonate and bring about positive change for them.
How, then, can we establish an effort-focused classroom culture? First, when teaching students about the relationship between effort and achievement, be explicit. Share stories about people who worked hard to be successful and help students identify the specific actions that contributed to their success. Then, talk with students about what they want to succeed at; help them identify their steps toward success, providing explicit guidance about what it means to expend effort. Be clear about what is necessary for success in your classroom and help students practice those skills. Finally, ask students to keep track of their effort and achievement. Rubrics or graphs depicting effort and achievement can help students to see the correlation between the two.
Critical thinking has always been key to academic and career success. But in the information age, it’s more important than ever, as students struggle to keep up with and process the copious amounts of information coming at them constantly.
In the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, McREL President and CEO Bryan Goodwin looks at what critical thinking really is and how it can best be taught. Its complexity—a mixture of dispositions and skills including valuing inquisitiveness and other points of view, using logical reasoning to support arguments, and examining our own beliefs and changing them based on new data—may explain why schools, and even colleges, often do little to develop it.
However, Goodwin says, research shows it can be learned, using two key approaches. First, critical thinking skills should be taught directly. Marin and Halpern (2011) showed that students in low-performing high schools who received explicit instruction in such skills (how to develop arguments, parse correlation from causation, identify stereotypes and mental models, and predict long-term consequences of decisions) demonstrated significant gains in critical thinking, while students who took a course in which critical thinking skills were embedded but not taught directly showed no gains.
In this white paper, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Erika Twani from the Learning One to One Foundation propose a new way of looking at online learning—not just as a different way to deliver standard classroom instruction, but as a way to provide personalized learning to students who may not thrive in typical school settings. Goodwin and Twani argue that low success rates in online schools may be, at least in part, the end result of translating a typical Carnegie-unit approach to a digital learning setting, rather than personalizing the learning process to encourage problem solving, curiosity, and real-world learning. The paper describes a research-based framework for creating learning paths for students based on their abilities, interests, and preferred learning styles, while leveraging the promise of education technology to serve struggling groups of students.
It’s a typical morning in your American History classroom. Today’s learning centers around the Revolutionary War and you want to help students engage by connecting with their senses and emotions. How can you do this successfully? Try asking your students to imagine, explain, debate, and interpret—from their perspective—the experience of crossing the Delaware with George Washington.
Teacher: You are floating down the Delaware River and you are seated behind George Washington. What do you hear, feel, smell, and see?
Students: I hear the waves crashing against the boat. I feel anxious and scared. I smell body odor. I see George’s white hair.
The next day, begin with a reminder of their imagined journey on the boat; then review and check for understanding. The students could have simply read a passage and answered questions about George Washington’s river crossing, but this simple immersive exercise promotes deeper relevance, engagement, understanding, problem-solving, comprehension, and retention.
Why does this exercise work so well?
Asking higher-order questions requires more time for students to think and articulate their answers, and can greatly extend classroom conversations and learning. When students are challenged with higher-order questions, they draw from their own experience to formulate their answers. In other words, their understanding becomes personalized. Thought-provoking questions not only encourage deeper discussions in the classroom, but also help students develop skills they can use in real-life decision making. Asking a variety of questions helps students actively and broadly engage with and deepen their understanding of the content. The questions invite students to respond based on their thoughts about the content, relying not just on basic recall but actual experience, helping students learn how to think rather than what to think.
How do you know when you’ve made a positive impact on a former student? As a teacher, there isn’t anything much more rewarding than receiving an “out-of-the-blue” message via phone call, e-mail, social media, or a personal visit from a former student. While I’ve yet to be contacted about how wonderfully I taught a specific subject or lesson, I have had former students tell me about the life lessons they learned in my classroom that made a difference or had an impact on their successes.
Educators do so much more than teach content and prepare students for assessments. Yes, we teach A LOT of content in the short time we have students, but when we take a step back and objectively look at who, what, and where we want our students to be as adults, it becomes easier to slip quick life lessons into the classroom throughout the year. Life lessons can have an impact on students as they mature into adulthood or as they apply for that first job. Research tells us that lessons that tap into our emotions have a much greater chance of being retained, so creating funny or engaging scenarios—such as a fishy handshake or sharing stories from real-life—can help students recall specific social awareness skills they learned in the classroom.