Category Archives: Current Affairs

Can compassion cure indifference?

Research suggests that the level of incivility in the U.S. is rising. As we publicly battle out our issues in every arena—on our roads, in schools, on social media, in the check-out lane—we’re exhausting our collective ability to empathize with each other. In his latest column in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s CEO and president Bryan Goodwin looks at the research and wonders why the shift away from empathy began, and how, as educators, we might help reverse this trend.

Empathy is feeling with another; compassion is feeling for another. Either would lead us to behave ethically toward the people around us. But, to social scientists and brain researchers, they differ in a crucial way: Compassion can be taught and better sustained than empathy.

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Are we thinking about what we’re asking students to think about?

An anecdote at the end of a recent New York Times article caught my attention because it raised the question of what constitutes meaningful student work. For a unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, students in a Michigan high school were given a choice of assignments: give a regular class presentation (meh) or use a 3-D printer to illustrate a theme from the novel (super cool!). The teacher proudly Tweeted one such student artifact: a 3-D gavel that illustrated the novel’s theme of social justice.

Amazing!

Or … is it?

Without wading into the thornier issue that the assignment was slyly related to a side business the teacher was running out of his basement (the focus of the Times piece), I had a question about the educational value of the project: What do we imagine students are thinking about when they engage in this sort of exercise?

Learning to use software and a 3-D printer to manipulate shapes and objects is a perfectly valid objective. But this was supposed to be an opportunity to think about themes from the novel. The student who chose the printer assignment probably didn’t put much thought about social justice into the task.

We know from cognitive studies of how our brains process information that we must at some point concentrate on what we’re learning to develop long-term memories. As University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham states: “Students remember … what they think about.”

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Differences, not disabilities

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?

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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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Do teacher evaluations really help teachers improve?

In recent years, annual performance reviews for teachers have become ubiquitous. Between 2009 and 2012 alone, the number of states requiring them jumped from 14 to 43. But do teacher evaluations make a difference in how teachers teach? Do they really help teachers improve?

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Does collaborating really help teachers grow?

A recent report from TNTP (formerly the New Teacher Project) examined the professional growth of 10,000 teachers to try to determine what distinguishes the “improvers” from the “non-improvers” and found—perhaps not surprising to some of you—that most of the professional development (PD) teachers receive does little to improve the quality of instruction.

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Siloed teacher PD: Why it doesn’t work

A new report on a two-year study conducted by TNTP on the effectiveness of professional development (PD) for teachers suggests that much of the available PD is ineffective in helping teachers improve, and that vast resources are being spent on programs that don’t stick. Our experience in working with districts and regional/state agencies has been that some PD works, and some doesn’t.

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Civil discourse on the Common Core

Being an academic standards consultant was once a fairly anonymous, low-profile job. Relatively few people seemed to know or care about the importance of educational standards, and news stories about standards were rare. Just a year or two ago, when I talked with other parents at the neighborhood park about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they politely smiled and nodded, not really understanding what I meant. But, as the CCSS slowly began to be implemented over the last couple of years, people who had never given a second thought to educational standards began to take notice and discuss what exactly it is that they thought our students should understand and be able to demonstrate.

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The “Innovator’s Mindset”

I recently read a blog post on developing innovation by George Couros, a principal with the Parkland School Division in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada. I’m a regular reader of Mr. Couros’ blog, “The Principal of Change,” but this one struck a particular chord with me. In his blog post, Couros refers to Carol Dweck’s work on “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets. Building on Dr. Dweck’s work, and encouraged by the knowledge that mindsets are impermanent—one can move from one to the other—Mr. Couros proposes that it is also possible to move past the growth mindset to what he calls the “innovator’s mindset.”

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