Imagine asking hundreds of students and adults to share their unfiltered thoughts and feelings about taking notes in school. What do you think you’d get back? It turns out that our team has actually conducted this mini research experiment in schools across the country, and here are the most common responses: pained faces, deep shudders, a litany of adjectives like boring, tedious, and torture (not technically an adjective, but you get the idea.)Are these responses about what you expected? Are they similar to what your own would be if you were one of the respondents?This visceral and negative response to notes is a real problem because we know from research (and experience) just how important notes are to student success. In fact, the comprehensive meta-analytic study that underpins the second edition of Classroom Instruction That Works (2012) shows that teaching students how to make effective notes is one of the highest-yield strategies of all, with associated student gains of over 30 percentile points (Beesley & Apthorp, 2010).
Curiosity is a compelling mental and emotional force that can propel students to ever-greater educational achievement. And of all the great ideas in Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, I’m really drawn to the Mystery tool [free tool download] because of its connection to curiosity.When we talk about trying to solve a mystery, we’re really talking about fashioning a hypothesis: Why do you think something happened, and can you prove it? While the word “hypothesis” is often associated with science, we can prompt students to phrase and answer such questions in all academic subjects—and, I would add, in all aspects of our lives. As discussed in Classroom Instruction That Works, hypothesizing pushes the brain into using one (or both) of two thought processes: deductive and inductive reasoning. And for our students, acquiring knowledge through active participation is often more engaging and effective than listening to a lecture.
In Millville Public Schools, we’ve been conducting informal classroom walkthroughs for more than 10 years to gather meaningful data about what’s going on in our nine schools. We use McREL’s Power Walkthrough app to record our notes and collect data on the instructional strategies we see (or don’t see) being used in classrooms. This gives us great, actionable information we can use in conversations with teachers and school leadership teams about needed professional development supports related to our instructional and professional goals. These walkthroughs are definitely not about evaluating teacher performance—they’re truly about instructional collaboration and professional learning.Getting into a long-term habit of routinely conducting and reflecting on our walkthroughs has helped us set and achieve a variety of key goals: determining a clear focus, developing a common language for instructional and leadership conversations, creating greater visibility for our principals and administrators throughout their schools, and establishing an open-door culture in all our schools. We want to share a little more about each of our results related to the goals we set, in case it sparks ideas for how walkthroughs can be used in your own school or district.
We identified seven ways to use Interaction in an Instant in Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, and Interaction in an Instant may be the least formal. Sometimes a simple opportunity to chat (within guidelines you’ll provide) is enough to generate energy in the classroom and launch students into a learning-by-talking process with many different peers
Imagine a student who is well adjusted socially but . . .
• Is reserved in group activities; rarely contributes to classroom discussions or activities.
• Has difficulty completing tasks.
• Appears to not follow instructions.
• Is reported as not paying attention, having a short attention span, or “zoning out.”
• Makes poor academic progress.
What could be causing these problems?
One might not initially consider memory, particularly working memory, as the mechanism at work in these types of young learners’ struggles. However, research has shown that working memory problems, even in the absence of diagnosed developmental disabilities, can result in learning challenges for students (Dehn, 2008; Gathercole, Lamont, & Alloway, 2006; Gathercole & Alloway, 2007; Holmes, Gathercole, and Dunning, 2010; Willingham, 2009).
The Gallup polling organization recently confirmed an observation that other researchers have made and that many of us have experienced firsthand: Older students are less “engaged” with school than younger ones. Students’ youthful zest for discovery dims a bit more with each school year, making the process of teaching and learning ever more challenging as students feel less connected to, and interested in, the topics they’re asked to learn. Waning engagement isn’t only a cause for concern among students, Gallup warned; parents and teachers need to feel engaged with a school too. If they don’t, it’s hard for the school to accomplish much.
This phenomenon was one of the motivations for my colleague Bryan Goodwin to write Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives (McREL, 2018). Describing the work of groundbreaking researchers like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Susan Engel, Bryan wondered what happens to students and schools that seems to be driving a wedge between them as time passes. And, crucially: Can it be fixed?
As deeply committed as we are to curiosity here at McREL, we recognize that in the absence of knowledge, curiosity wouldn’t do anybody much good. That’s why we’ve also been doing some digging into the nature of memory, hoping to guide teachers toward practices that maximize the acquisition and retention of knowledge.
As explored more deeply in our recent white paper, Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, the human brain works quite hard to help us filter out and forget extraneous information. This probably made good sense in the hunt-or-be-hunted days, but in the information age, forgetting is not a recipe for success.
Fortunately, once teachers know the stages of memory—and what happens between them—they can use some clever workarounds to help students strengthen recall. Essentially, we need to trick our brains into forgetting to forget.
SEL is one of those acronyms familiar mainly to educators. But once the idea behind social emotional learning is explained, only the staunchest readin’, ’ritin’, ’rithmetic types could possibly be against it. Simply put, should schools help students to develop the personal characteristics and interpersonal skills that are associated with success in school and life?
Even if the answer is a resounding “yes,” that still leaves the question: Can they?
McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin explores the research attempting to answer these questions in the October edition of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine. Frustratingly, he finds, SEL programs—and researchers’ attempts to evaluate them—have been too inconsistent to allow for sweeping do’s and don’ts on SEL objectives and design.
In 2011, the school region (what Americans call a district) of North Melbourne, Australia, launched an improvement initiative that stood out for being based on positivity, curiosity, and “inside-out” leadership rather than yet another series of top-down mandates. The North Melbourne experience soon became a source of inspiration for McREL, which has been advocating for more schools and districts to take a similarly upbeat approach to improvement and innovation.
I was the assistant principal of an elementary school in North Melbourne at the time, and, looking back, I feel like I participated in something historic. With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you our story about how it all began.
As we visit schools and speak with educators all over the world, my colleagues and I are always on the lookout for attitudes toward curiosity. Is it encouraged or quashed? Is it treated as a necessity, an impractical luxury, or—conversely, as a nuisance or a distraction?
While doing research for McREL’s newest book, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives, I was struck by the fact that we’re all born with curiosity, but some of us, in effect, lose access to it. Over time, this loss often pervades many aspects of our lives, not just schooling; without guidance, such as from a talented teacher or inspiring leader, natural curiosity can wither to the point of near uselessness.
“Childhood curiosity is a collaboration between child and adult,” writes Ian Leslie in Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (2015). It’s the availability and effectiveness of that collaboration, perhaps more than any other resource gap, that may separate the haves and have-nots of the future.