Category Archives: Everyday Innovation

Saying no to fads—in dieting and education reform

Simply Better: What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success offers not a new “fad diet” for education, but rather the education reform equivalent of a “healthy lifestyle”—those things that decades of research says are most likely to have a big effect on student achievement.

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What’s good for the body is good for the mind

First Lady Michelle Obama tours the country speaking of healthy eating habits, Dr. Oz answers your health questions on daytime TV, and the USDA recently updated the food pyramid. As obesity rates rise, healthy living is front page news. Then why are schools cutting physical education (PE) programs? That answer has also been front page news: budget cuts and falling academic scores. Schools need to do more with less, and cutting PE leaves more time and money for academics. In California alone, according to a policy brief released in May by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 1.3 million teens in California do not participate in any school-based PE classes.

However, research shows that PE may be just what students need to perform better at school. Researchers Kathryn L. King, MD, and Carly J. Scahill, DO, from the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital implemented a program among 1st through 6th graders at low-performing schools in South Carolina that incorporated academic skills into physical activity. For instance, younger children used scooters to trace shapes on the ground, and older children climbed a rock wall outfitted with changing numbers to help them solve math problems. Students were engaged in this program for 40 minutes a day, five days a week. At the end of the year, test scores improved from 55 percent to 68.5 percent proficient.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules (2008), cites a similar study that examined the brain power of children before they began an exercise program. The children began jogging 30 minutes two or three times a week and, after 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly. Perhaps just as important, when the exercise program was taken away, children’s scores plummeted back to pre-activity levels.

Because students are expected to learn more and more information at an increased rate, they need all the brain power they can create. Scores keep falling regardless of the programs and strategies schools implement—not unlike a “check engine” light that keeps appearing because, no matter how many times you take it to the shop, the mechanic isn’t fixing the actual problem. Maybe the mechanic is even making the problem worse.

Have you noticed the academic effects of cutting physical education in your school? Is more academic time a viable reason to cut ancillary programs?

Georgia’s vision moving closer to reality

An earlier blog, The Power behind Envisioning, describes the Georgia Vision Project, one state’s effort to rally residents in support of a singular high-stakes cause—providing all children in the state with an excellent education so they can be successful in college, career, and life.

A risky endeavor, you say? You bet it is, but so far, the response to the 45 recommendations has been great, say the planners. That response could be sheer luck, but it’s doubtful.

Take, for instance, the fact that the George Lucas Foundation has tapped Whitfield County Schools in rural northwestern Georgia (where 66% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) to be part of its new “Schools that Work” series. At first glance, Whitfield County, which includes five public middle schools embracing project-based learning, seems the polar opposite of the first school profiled in the series—San Diego’s High Tech High, a network of nine K–12 charter schools founded by a coalition of business leaders and educators and with an annual operating budget of about $27 million. Despite marked differences in school culture and resources, the schools share important principles: a common intellectual mission, personalization, and adult-world connections.

And herein is a lesson for us all.

Perhaps more school districts should be like Whitfield County, where educators are respected enough by the community to make decisions about what is and isn’t good for their kids; where supporting one another is a practice, not just an idea (e.g., administrators fulfill morning duties so teachers can meet and plan together); and where there is freedom to try and even fail at new ways to engage students in learning for today and tomorrow.

Recommendation 8.4 of A Vision for Public Education in Georgia is this: Develop a culture and climate that foster innovation and responsible risk-taking.  Whitfield County can check this one off the list.

Read why the George Lucas Foundation chose Whitfield County Schools as a “Schools that Work” school here: http://www.edutopia.org/stw-replicating-pbl-why-we-chose-strengths

 

Turning classroom instruction on its head

The classroom lecture. It’s been criticized, despised, even lampooned. An entire generation  can probably recite the lines to Ben Stein’s dead-pan, droning lecture in the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (“Anyone?… Anyone?”)


But lectures aren’t necessarily bad. In fact , they can be an efficient way to help students acquire new knowledge. The problem with lectures, though, is often a matter of pacing. For some students, the information may come too slowly or repeat information they already know. Result: boredom.

For others, a lecture may provide too much information too rapidly or presume prior knowledge students don’t have. If students zone out for a moment, they may miss important content and be lost for the rest of the lecture. Result: confusion.

After a hit-or-miss lecture, teachers often give homework assignments, which students perform in what may be a private hell of frustration and confusion. What did my teacher said about cross-multiplying? Comma use in compound sentences? The Laffer Curve?

A new generation of enterprising teachers is beginning to turn this classroom model on its head, creating what are called “flipped” or “inverted” classrooms. Using simple web software, they record and post their lectures online, creating mini-lectures similar to what Salman Khan has created with his Khan Academy collection of more than 2,000 online lessons. (Click here to view Khan’s recent TED talk).

In these inverted classrooms, students watch the lectures at home, where they’re able to speed up content they already understand or stop and review content they don’t get the first time around (and might be too embarrassed to ask their teachers to repeat in class). The online lecture also incorporates visual representation, such as animated graphs or photos of important historical events.

Now, when students come to class, they can ask their teachers clarifying questions about the previous night’s lesson and engage in guided practice on problems they might otherwise have struggled with at home in tormented isolation. During class time, teachers can provide students with real-time feedback and correct misperceptions before they become deeply ingrained.

Jamie Yoos, last year’s teacher of the year in Washington state has created his own “inverted classroom” (see below).

Click here to view some of Yoos’ lectures on TeacherTube.

Similarly, two Colorado teachers, Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams, have also “flipped” their classrooms with vodcasting (i.e., online broadcasting of videos).

Students of these innovative teachers say they love the new format and are more engaged in class. Sure, there may be a few students out there who still delight in a 50-minute lecture, but for the rest, inverted classrooms just seem to make … anyone? … anyone? … perfect sense.

New review of McREL’s The Future of Schooling

Dave Orphal, over at the Learning 2030 blog, offers this nice review of McREL’s latest book, The Future of Schooling.

In his review, Orphal praises the book for its timeliness. He notes, for example, that one of the critical uncertainties identified in the book—whether the outcomes of education will be standardized or differentiated—is currently playing out in the “movement to national common core standards” being countered by critiques from “Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink who argue that standardization is exactly the wrong direction to go.”

Orphal also praises the book for its balanced view on these issues, noting that the authors take “great pains to not reveal where they stand in some of the hottest educational debates raging the country.” He adds, “Neither pro-Rhee nor pro-union; neither pro-testing nor pro-authentic assessment; neither pro-charter nor anti-charter, there is plenty in this book to anger every side of our overly partisan educational reform circles.”

Our intent is not to anger anyone. Rather, it’s to provoke thinking about what the future may hold, to move people out of their comfort zones so that they can begin to prepare themselves for what may lie ahead. As we write in the book, “Some of these potential futures may capitvate and energize you; others may dishearten and frigthen you. Some may do all of the above. That’s the point.”

Read Orphal’s entire review here.

Approaching learning like a video game

Here are two common classroom scenarios: A student is bored while waiting for classmates to finish a test and, therefore, becomes disruptive, or a student is frustrated due to misunderstanding the material, but the class moves forward, anyway. One student wants to speed up past the group and one wants to slow down from the group. In either scenario, the student is left feeling unmotivated. But what would the scenario be if schools were not structured around groups, but rather the individual?

We’re all familiar with basic video game design: A player participates individually, and when a level is complete, moves on to the next level, right?  Adams 50 School District in Westminster, Colorado, has taken a similar approach in how students progress from level to level.

Students are tested and placed in one of 16 performance levels. They then move through the levels at their own pace, not according to a school calendar or their peers. There are still curriculum expectations, but students decide how to learn that content; they could write an essay, prepare a presentation, or work in a group and demonstrate key knowledge and skills.

Is this an approach you would like to see in more schools or in your own school? Do you think individualized curriculum is the master key to student success? Can this approach hold up against the Common Core and state standardized testing?

To learn more about how Adams 50 implements this approach to learning, read our story on the Adams 50 website.

Making the case for bottom-up change in school reform

In President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, he called out the Bruce Randolph School, a turnaround school here in Denver. Once one of the worst-performing schools in Colorado, Bruce Randolph graduated 90 percent of its seniors last year—and 87 percent of them headed to college a few months ago. Obama attributed the school’s success to reform that is not just “a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.”

So how did they do it? According to a Denver Post article, then-Principal Kristin Waters first asked all teachers to reapply for their positions (only 6 out of 40 remained). Then, the school became the first in Colorado to be granted “innovation” status, a move that allowed it to operate more like a charter school, granting it autonomy from district and union rules and giving it more flexibility in terms of budget, hiring decisions, schedule, calendar, and incentives.

Waters said the school succeeded, ultimately, because it created “the supports for students, teaching them to ask for help and giving them that help…It was all about best practices, holding teachers and students accountable and creating high expectations.”

These factors are also at the heart of ongoing school improvement efforts in McLeansville, North Carolina, at Northeast High School (NEHS), which has moved from the academic “watch list” to the county’s “most improved school,” having increased test scores sharply for two years in a row. Since 2007, the school has seen double-digit gains in the percentages of proficient students in seven subjects, including increases of 34.5 percent in physical science and 25 percent in geometry.

The school did it by getting all teachers and administrators on the same page in terms of its main goal: to improve student engagement. Now, teachers hold themselves accountable by creating criteria for engagement and collaborating frequently, and “focus walks” by teacher leaders and administrators ensure that students are not only engaged but also learning in all classrooms via the same research-based instructional strategies.

In both cases, improvement efforts started at the student level. The schools didn’t bring in new programs or overhaul their systems; they simply figured out what their students needed most and found the best way to systemically meet those needs.

How does your school ensure students are engaged and supported? Do you have other examples of bottom-up change that have worked?

Putting a little mystery in teaching

Want to hear a simple, surefire way to get kids interested in what you’re teaching?

First, think back to your childhood. For kids, the world can be a wonderful, mysterious place. That’s why, as any parent knows, children are naturally full of questions. Why is the sky blue? Why do I dream? Why do birds fly south for the winter? The list goes on and on.

As we grow up, we solve these mysteries and fill our heads with facts. Over time, we start to forget what made things so interesting to us in the first place. As teachers, it’s easy for us to take a Joe Friday “just-the-facts, ma’am” approach to teaching. As a result, we blow the suspense for children. We come right out and tell them the answers to the mystery, rather than building their interest by posing questions such as, “Have you ever seen a shooting star? What do you suppose that is?”

A few years ago, Robert Cialdini,  a psychologist at Arizona State University, wrote an article titled, “What’s the secret device for engaging student interest? Hint: The answer is in the title.” After sifting through dozens of dry science articles, Cialdini found that engaging science writers take a different approach: they pose a question, for example, “What are the rings of Saturn made of? Rock or ice?” Then they build suspense and mystery before finally resolving the mystery. The answer, in this case (spoiler alert!), is both.

Teachers, can, of course, do the same thing in their classrooms. Instead of coming right out and providing kids with the answers, they can build suspense in all kinds of subject areas, not just science. For example, in social studies, a teacher might offer this mystery: How could a rag tag army of volunteers (the American revolutionaries) defeat the world’s greatest superpower at the time (the British empire)? In math, a teacher might get kids wondering how to calculate the area of a circle. Gee … wouldn’t it be great if there were some kind of “magic” formula for that?

At two upcoming events—a lecture here in Colorado on Jan. 15 and a free, national, NASA-sponsored webcast on Jan. 20—McREL staff members will offer up some big space science mysteries (and their answers), helping teachers think about how to design their lessons around these mysteries.

So as you plan your next lesson, you might ask yourself, what’s the mystery here?

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

How do you teach science to students with visual impairments?

Imagine a big ball of rock and ice hurtling through space that grows a tail as it approaches the sun. Can you picture that?

Well, maybe not. You might wonder, what kind of tail? Is it long like a monkey’s, curled like a pig’s, or bobbed like a poodle’s?

Well, none of those, I might tell you. It’s more like a jet condensation trail, only a little wider and not as long—relatively speaking, that is.

But what if you’d never actually seen a con trail—or a monkey or poodle tail for that matter. We could go on like this forever, playing a sort of 20 questions game, each of us becoming more exasperated.

Obviously, if I could just show you the image of a comet, you would quickly understand what I’m describing. That’s the challenge science teachers face, though, when trying to help students with visual impairments grasp difficult science concepts: They can’t rely on simple images from textbooks. They must help students use manipulative and tactile tools to “see” what they’re learning.

For the past three years, McREL has been working with Edinboro University, Tactile Learning Adventures, and the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind to develop an intervention to help teachers create tactile graphics and written descriptions for visually impaired students.

The project, titled ACE (for Adapted Curriculum Enhancements) and funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, has created and studied the effectiveness of materials and lessons designed to help grades 6–12 mainstream teachers adapt lessons for students with visual impairments.

So how do you help a student with visual impairments visualize a comet? Here’s a hint: it involves a Styrofoam ball, some ribbons, and a hair dryer.

View this lesson and download other free lessons and materials from the ACE website at http://www.ace-education.org/.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

Can we predict the future of education?

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” ~ Yogi Berra.

Clearly, change is in the air these days in education, whether we’re Waiting for Superman, racing to the top, dotting our three i’s, or wondering how tea party politics may change the face of Washington.

In light of all these changes and uncertainties, the question on many minds is likely, where is it all leading?

The most truthful answer anyone can give to that question is this one: nobody knows for sure.

It’s simply not possible to predict how all of these various trends will come together to shape a new future. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t prepare ourselves for it. The trick is to consider multiple, alternative futures and begin to envision how we—or our districts, schools, or students—might flourish in each.

In a new book from McREL to be released this month by Solution Tree Press, we analyze current and emerging trends in a wide array of areas, including politics, the economy, technology, and society. After analyzing these trends, we offer, not a prediction of the future, but four, very different scenarios for what the future may hold.

The scenarios in the book, titled The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020, are designed to provoke readers to ponder many “what if,” questions, including:

  • What if the current, multibillion-dollar federal investment in education succeeds in identifying and scaling up numerous innovations that transform schooling as we know it?
  • What if, on the other hand, investing billions of new dollars fails to create dramatic improvements in education? Will the public continue to support public schools as we know them?
  • What if online learning becomes as commonplace in the schools of tomorrow as chalkboards were in the schools of yesterday?
  • What if technology allows students to proceed at their own pace along individualized pathways, measuring their progress in real time at each step of the way?
  • What if the world’s best teachers are able to broadcast their lessons to thousands of students each day?

The reality is that the world of education is changing rapidly. While we don’t know exactly what lies ahead, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the world standing still and education in 10 years looking exactly the same as it does today.

The good news is that when confronted with this uncertainty, we don’t have to throw up our hands in hopeless desperation (or stick our heads in the sand). Rather, we can begin preparing today for what tomorrow may bring.

Learn more or purchase a copy of the book on the McREL website here.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.