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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.

Homework and practice have a sister

By Blog, Classroom Instruction that Works 21 Comments

In our work with districts across the county, we often find that homework and practice is a bone of contention in many schools. Many issues arise if the strategy of homework and practice (H&P) is misapplied. Sometimes H&P is too large a part of the students’ total grade. This enables some students to pass a class without really showing that they know the subject. Other times H&P is not differentiated enough resulting in some students finding the work too frustrating and others seeing it as a total waste of their time. Furthermore, the purpose of an H&P activity might not be communicated well to the students or the activity really has little or no purposeful connection to the learning objectives at all. For instance, we have all seen busy work such as word searches assigned as homework for homework’s sake. If the teacher, and more importantly the students, cannot readily tell you why an H&P activity is important, than it probably does not have a good purpose and should not have been assigned in the first place.

But the problem I find most egregious is when there is no opportunity for feedback on H&P activities. When you practice something you are trying to see what you are doing well and what you need to change about what you do not do well. This requires feedback, usually from someone as skilled as or more so than you in the subject. This is why master teachers pair homework and practice with its sister strategy, providing feedback.

Providing feedback can be tiered to give every opportunity to the students to receive the guidance they need to learn. For instance, teachers could lead students through checking the work and accuracy of their math homework (whole group feedback). Then the students could pair up and discuss how to solve the three practice problems that were most challenging to them (peer feedback). Then the teacher could encourage students to revise their work based on the feedback (mastery teaching). Finally, the teacher could collect a random assignment at the end of the week for in-depth feedback by the teacher (expert feedback).

In any case, students should have the opportunity for meaningful practice that includes criteria-based corrective feedback. These feedback should be both positive and negative in that is lets the students know what they are doing well and not well and how to improve it. Then the students should have the opportunity to act on this feedback to make the corrections. Sports coaches and master teachers know this practice and feedback loop very well. Do you have an example of a practice/feedback loop that you use with your students?

By Matt Kuhn – Curriculum & Instruction Consultant – STEM

Are we doing everything we can?

By Blog, Leadership Insights 5 Comments

Earlier this week, President Obama gave a speech to students throughout the nation, urging them to “set your own goals for your education—and to do everything you can to meet them.” He spoke to the teacher’s responsibility of inspiring students and pushing them to learn and closed his speech by remarking that “your teachers and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have education you need.”

Strong words and straightforward advice from this nation’s leader.

But not necessarily all true.

A former colleague, who is now an instructional coach in a school district which will remain nameless, told me recently that while some teachers embrace professional learning, too many (even one is too much) still resist the idea of using coaching or professional development to improve their teaching methods.

While I’m not astounded by this finding, I find it extremely disappointing that we are in the business of helping kids and increasing student achievement and yet there teachers out there who would rather settle for the status quo.

I’m left wondering: Are we truly doing everything we can to help students get the education they need?

Mel Sussman, a former school principal, is a principal consultant at McREL.

How did President Obama’s speech to school children affect your school?

By Blog, Leadership Insights 3 Comments

Last week, as news of the President’s plan to address students today began to circulate, many Americans voiced support for, and concerns about, his planned speech. To be certain, this issue brought to the surface some of the deep political divisions in our country.

I’m sure the nightly news, the Internet, and tomorrow’s newspapers will be filled with stories about the broadcast, but I’m interested to hear, first-hand from educators, their perspectives on the address. For example, I’d like to know:

  • How did you handle the broadcast of the President’s message in your school?
  • What did you do after the broadcast? Did you prepare a lesson plan related to the broadcast? (Was  this a  “teachable moment” in your view?)
  • How did students (and their parents) respond to the message?
  • How did you view the message? Was it a welcome “pep talk” from the President… or an unwanted distraction?

Please post responses to these questions directly to this blog. Thank you.

What does teaching really look like?

By Blog, Classroom Instruction that Works 3 Comments

I attended Colorado’s Learning 2.0 conference in February of this year, my second time participating in this lively “unconference conference.” The kinds of conversations and connections that are made at this event are, I think, the future of educational gatherings. Howard Pitler and I presented “What Does Teaching Really Look Like?” In this session, we presented data from our Power Walkthrough software. Now that we are nearly two years into this product, we have compiled data from over 27,000 walkthroughs. We are starting to get a picture of what classrooms look like during the school day and what our students are actually doing during their K-12 years.

What we are finding is startling: overwhelmingly, the primary instructional strategies that teachers are using are Practice, Cues & Questions, Nonlinguistic Representation, and Feedback. While these are all very effective strategies, those that engage students in higher order thinking skills, such as Generating and Testing Hypotheses and Identifying Similarities and Differences, represent a small margin of the strategies used.

Almost 80% of the time, students are either working individually (24%) or are in whole-group instruction (54%). This means that students are in cooperative groups, informal small groups, or pairs only 20% of the time. Considering the social nature of students, especially Millennials, this is unfortunate. Working collaboratively is increasingly becoming a necessary skill for the 21st century workplace, yet students get relatively little time to practice these skills. Teacher-directed question/answer and worksheets are two primary methods of providing evidence of learning. (See Wes Fryer’s post on Worksheets here

The data that is being gathered is starting to paint a picture that we know all too well: due to high stakes testing and curricula that are all too often a mile long and an inch deep, teachers will quickly cue and question students, then give them practice time and feedback to learn the content or skill. There are many solutions to this problem, some more quickly implemented than others: reconstruct curricula so that students get deeper learning experiences with less content, make lecture material readily accessible online so that students come to class with the background knowledge for higher level projects (see Rethinking Homework, Part 1 of 2), and make sure that administrators can provide the support teachers need for collaborative inquiry projects with their students.

Administrators, what other “low-hanging fruit” can you think of that would help teachers to have the skills, time, and resources to make certain that higher-order thinking and project-based learning is happening regularly in classrooms? Teachers, what barriers currently keep you from doing as much collaborative, inquiry-based learning as you would like?

We welcome your comments.

*For a complete article on this topic, we invite you to read this month’s issue of Changing Schools, a free quarterly magazine written and published by McREL.

Elizabeth R. Hubbell is an Educational Technology Consultant in the Curriculum & Instruction department at McREL.

NCLB and Science/Social Studies instruction in high-risk schools

By Blog, Research Insights One Comment

Unsurprisingly, NCLB reauthorization hasn’t garnered much press recently. As this recent Education Week column points out, the stimulus package took the heat off of Congress, leading to speculation that any proposed reauthorization bill won’t gain much traction this year. Legislation aside, the NCLB debate is ongoing. Case in point: the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or CALDER, recently organized a conference inviting researchers to consider differences in educational outcomes and delivery since the passage of NCLB. Presentations from the conference, co-hosted by the National Center on Performance Incentives, were recently posted here.

Findings presented at the conference touch upon a range of subjects, worthy of at least a few minutes’ perusal (if not a few hours’). Dale Ballou and Jeffrey Springer, both of Vanderbilt, contributed a representative presentation on science and social studies instruction in high-risk schools. Conventional wisdom suggests that schools struggling to meet AYP goals would be tempted to neglect instruction in subjects which do not impact accountability outcomes – social studies, and until recently, science. Using data from South Carolina, which adopted a no-stakes science and social studies test in 2003, and Virginia, which incorporated science and social studies test results in accreditation requirements beginning in 1998, the authors present conclusive evidence to the contrary.

Essentially, post-NCLB science and social studies scores improved at pace with math and reading scores in each state. In Virginia, the scores for these subjects improved at a faster rate in high-risk than in low-risk schools, except among scores designated as ‘advanced’, where the gap widened slightly. While scores improved in South Carolina, the gap remained relatively constant between low- and high-risk schools. The only evidence of trade-off: high-risk South Carolina elementary schools, where the authors found that reading instruction displaced non-core subjects. On average, South Carolina schools studied managed to close this gap by high school, which may suggest that the extra reading instruction paid off. While the authors caution that their results can’t be generalized to all states, their study lends weight to the argument that accountability requirements which reward improvement in math and reading don’t always come at the expense of science and social studies.

Timing is sometimes everything!!!

By Blog, Leadership Insights One Comment

Holding environments are where you find them! One day last week our team of leadership consultants took a rare opportunity to escape the confines of our offices and go to lunch. While I can’t deny that I thoroughly enjoyed the hot pastrami sandwich, which I wolfed down with zest, I equally enjoyed the opportunity to share in a variety of important conversations with my fellow consultants and good friends.

We rarely have the opportunity to sit as a group and relate stories of our recent travels, triumphs and faux pas, along with sharing ideas about future work and how to improve our presentations. This was a golden opportunity in which we all equally participated. This was a holding environment in its purest form… unplanned, with no required agenda. Instead, it was a chance to gain valuable insights from one another.

But holding environments come packaged in a variety of formats.

I just recently returned from a professional development in a far-away place. The two-day event went extremely well. I was well received and the administrators who attended walked away with what seemed to be a great number of ideas which they could put to use in their own school.

However, it was the third day of consultation which turned out to be the most worthwhile for all parties. On this day, principals were offered the opportunity to meet with me and engage in open-discussions about initiatives and situations upon which they were about to embark in the coming semester.

Principals and their leadership teams were each given an hour to meet in a private location, where they could talk openly and honestly about their particular situations. In each session the emotions ran high as teams expressed their anxieties, frustrations and nervous anticipation about what was waiting for them in the coming year. This office had evolved into a think tank of the highest order.

And it wasn’t just negativity being expressed in these sessions. Both young and seasoned administrators proudly offered details of exciting new ventures, which were now only in the design stage. As much as they wanted answers from me, they were equally as satisfied just to have me listen.

It was as if I had taken the lid off the pot, allowing their thoughts, dreams, and concerns to rise to the top, just like the steam which rises from that giant pot of vegetable soup. Not that they were ever denied this opportunity… but rather that the setting, timing and cast of characters had never before come together.

Talk about the sheer power of a “holding environment,” or “safe place,” where staff members feel free to talk about what is going on in the organization; where they can express themselves, debate issues and clarify assumptions without fear of repercussion. This was certainly it.

At the conclusion of that 8 hour marathon, I walked away both exhausted and at the same time exhilarated.  Sometimes the best teaching we can do is when we provide the opportunity for people to learn together and from each other.

By Mel Sussman

The problem with “problem solving”

By Blog, Classroom Instruction that Works 3 Comments

There is a big difference between generating and testing hypotheses – problem solving and doing practice problems. The difference lies in the level of critical thinking required. These two instructional strategies are often confused by instructional leaders. This isn’t surprising since most text books rarely differentiate between the two.

When we train school leaders to conduct walkthroughs with McREL’s Power Walkthrough software, we make sure they can distinguish between the two. Let’s look at an example of this distinction. We might walk into a classroom and see students quietly completed a worksheet that asks them to find and correct ten “problems” with grammatical errors. These are language arts practice problems. On the other hand, students could be contemplating possible solutions to a community problem such as homelessness in Miami. In this second example, students would be using the problem solving process to define the problem, analyze and hypothesize multiple solutions, weigh these solutions against each other, and plan for action.

I am not implying that it is not worthwhile for students to do practice problems. Practice is important for building the foundational skills students need. Nonetheless, if we want students to think critically, we cannot be satisfied with just doing practice problems. We have to build upon the foundations laid by them by providing students opportunities to analyze, evaluate, and create through problem solving. Do you have an innovative example of generating and testing hypotheses – problem solving? If so, share it with us in a reply to this posting.