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Our expert researchers, evaluators, and veteran educators synthesize information gleaned from our research and blend it with best practices gathered from schools and districts around the world to bring you insightful and practical ideas that support changing the odds of success for you and your students. By aligning practice with research, we mix professional wisdom with real world experience to bring you unexpectedly insightful and uncommonly practical ideas that offer ways to build student resiliency, close achievement gaps, implement retention strategies, prioritize improvement initiatives, build staff motivation, and interpret data and understand its impact.

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What does it really take to personalize learning?

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.

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Supporting students’ growth mindset and effort

“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.

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Teaching our students to think critically in the era of fake news

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.

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Higher-order questioning inspires higher-level thinking

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.

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Teachable Life Lessons: Hula hoops® and fishy handshakes

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.

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