Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ch. 6 – Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

Robin Jackson starts this chapter by reminiscing about her experiences with homework, then reviews some of the basic Master Teacher principles stated previously.  She then states the principle for this chapter:
“Master teachers… spend more time designing quality assignments and assessments than they do creating volumes of work for their students and themselves. Master teachers know that it isn’t the amount of work that is important; it’s the quality of the work that matters.” (p. 156)
As much as kids lament the amount of work we educators give them, they often don’t realize that we end up with that amount multiplied by the 25-30 kids we have in each classroom.  The problem for both beginning and veteran teachers is: Often we forget this mathematical horror, too!  More work doesn’t necessarily mean that kids will understand a concept more deeply or develop mastery of a skill.  Often times it ends up being more work to keep kids busy. Kids pick up on this, too, the author says, which likely explains why they don’t complete or turn in homework.  To a student, it’s just not meaningful enough to care about.
The author points out some important things to keep in mind as we design quality, meaningful activities to help our students achieve mastery:
1.       FIRST, determine what students absolutely need to know and how well they need to know it.  (Remember how we unpacked the standards so we would “Know Where Your Students Are Going” back in Chapter 2?)
2.       THEN, decide what learning activities will help students master the objectives.
3.       NEXT, provide multiple opportunities & methods to develop and deepen students’ knowledge, understanding, and use of the skills they learn through delivery of curriculum & instruction.  In other words: DIFFERENTIATE.
4.       ALWAYS use homework wisely.  The author tells us of her experiences in a high school English classroom: “The less homework I assigned, the more likely my students were to complete it because they understood that the assignment was not just busy work.” She goes on the state, “Just make sure that the homework you do assign directly connects with the learning goal and that you make this connection explicit.  If you cannot connect homework to your learning goals, then you should not assign it.” (p. 185)
5.       REMEMBER it’s not about coverage, it’s about mastery.  Have supports ready to implement when 1-2 kids don’t meet the objective or expectation.  If a majority of your class can’t meet, re-evaluate your methods and re-teach for mastery.
6.       Backfill or Build bridges as needed when you find students are missing essential knowledge/skills.
Teach the Need-To-Knows versus Nice-To-Knows
Determine How Well Students Need to Know the Need-to-Knows
Once you have unpacked the standards, it becomes easier to determine what the Need-To-Knows are. You can also look at state-mandated tests, or here in Illinois we can use the Assessment Frameworks.  You should also become familiar with the standards for success/mastery at the previous and at the next grade levels, and determine what kids will need to know and be able to do to get from “Point A” to “Point B.”  These Need-To-Knows then become the foundation for everything you do in class.  According to one author discussed by Jackson, teachers should “spend between 70-75 percent of their time helping students master essential content, 20 percent of their time introducing and extending students’ knowledge of essential content, and only 5-10 percent of their time helping students maintain their understanding of a few key nice-to-knows.” (p. 166)
Distributed Practice
The concept of Distributed Practice is simple: Divide learning experiences into smaller “chunks” and teach, learn, and assess skills one step at a time.  Of course, students will need to perform longer tasks for the summative assessment, but it is more valuable to both student and teacher to assess student understanding of each step necessary for mastery one-at-a-time in order to check for disconnects or gaps during the learning process.  Success on the summative assessment will then be more likely assured.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Chapter 5: Use Effective Feedback

The author begins with a good reminder for us all: “Grades” and “Learning” are not synonyms. Grades give teachers a way of quantifying what they communicate to parents, how they make placement or promotion decisions, and when to provide incentive or remediation.  To summarize how I interpret Jackson’s into: 
Effective feedback should inform students (and parents) about how to do better.  It should tell students where they are in relation to the achievement of the objective/standard/expectation, and exactly what they need to do in order to get there. (Remember Chapter 3: Expect To Get Your Students There?)  “You are at Point A. you need to get to Point B. How are we going to get you from here to there?”  You’re not evaluating, you’re defining (or helping kids define):
Situation à Target à Path
Obviously, there are numerous ways to gather evidence and opportunities for feedback.  We call them by many names: assignments, homework, in-class activities, quizzes, tests, performance assessments, projects, reports, and on and on. 
The first trick is to change it up frequently.  Remember: Start Where Your Students Are (Chapter 1) and Support Your Students (Chapter 4).  Develop relationships with your kids so you know each of them as a learner.  Neither you nor they will know what the next teacher down the road is going to throw at them, so help them become more successful at a broad range of assessment types.
Next, and this is my viewpoint, find a balance in the frequency at which you offer assessments & feedback.  Kids want to be validated every day, and sometimes every minute of every day, but that’s not always practical for the teacher.  Develop ways to offer verbal feedback, through questioning techniques, conferencing, etc.  Instead of a big test at the end of a unit, could you administer shorter quizzes more frequently?  (Remember from Chapter 4 – don’t wait until kids fail to assess learning, give feedback, and apply supports.) Try using rubrics with clear “kid-friendly” descriptors that can help speed up the process for you.
Help kids collect and analyze their own data.  Psychologists call this “metacognition,” and there are few activities that work one’s “Big Brain” harder or more effectively than this.  Develop the expectation that kids keep track of their own progress, and build in opportunities to help them do so.  Help kids develop “learning portfolios” that contain good work as well as work that shows areas where they can make progress.  Clearly relate these activities to a student’s “grade” and progress toward meeting standards/expectations.  Help kids understand how & why they might fail, too, before the failure occurs.  Consider opportunities to retake tests or resubmit assignments, too.

Chapter 4: Support Your Students

Jackson begins Chapter 4 explaining “The Curse of Knowledge”: Once we learn or know something, it is difficult to understand what it is like to NOT know it.  Teachers tend to think, “Since I learned/understood it this way, you students will be able to learn/understand it this same way, too.”  Therefore, teachers tend to teach the way they were taught, forgetting that kids in their classrooms might learn differently.  Confusion ensues, followed by frustration, student failures, and an overall meltdown of “the way things ought to be.”
They way to fix this, Jackson says, is thinking proactively.  Waiting until kids fail and then figuring out how to remediate is the sign of a passive disregard for student differences.  The old adage, “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” rings true. 
Instead, remediation plans – let’s call them “interventions” – should be an integral part of the lesson planning process.  As teachers plan lesson activities, ask yourselves:
·         What concepts often cause kids to become confused, frustrated, etc.? 
·         What mistakes are common along this Road to Understanding I’ve so carefully mapped out?
Then, once those trouble-spots are identified, ask yourselves:
·         When kids do get confused or make mistakes, what can I help them do differently that will get them back on-track?  
·         What supports, tips & tricks, etc., can I teach them to help them get over smaller rough spots?
·         What other ways to approach this skill/topic might help kids who are having a REALLY tough time?
The following elements make up an effective intervention system, according to the author:
1.       An intervention plan is developed before students begin to fail. It is posted on a Web site, sent home in a flyer early in the year, discussed in class before the lesson/unit begins, etc.
2.       An objective, measurable “red flag” mechanism activates the intervention plan.  For example:
a.        Student scores less than 76% = Red Flag
b.       Student does not turn in (n) assignments during a term = Red Flag
c.        Student “does not meet” a standard or expectation = Red Flag, etc.
3.       A concrete procedure exists and kicks in automatically once the red flag is raised.
a.        Think “IF – THEN” statements
b.       Here is where you’d customize interventions for individual learners
c.        Interventions ARE NOT busy work or punishments.  EVER!
4.       Students share accountability with the teacher for making the plan work.
a.        Interventions ARE NOT VOLUNTARY for students or teachers
b.       Don’t wait for kids to ask for help.  Make sure kids know exactly what to do when the plan is triggered
So, we must anticipate and pinpoint confusion, and develop a plan to help kids before anyone realizes that the kids need help.  In the process, we make sure kids (and their parents) are aware of these steps & procedures, and that everyone understands that this is a normal & acceptable part of learning and growing.  As kids show progress, we gradually remove the supports (“crutches,” “training wheels,” whatever you want to call them) as kids experience increased success.  For those who don’t need the supports, provide appropriate challenges so they don’t become complacent – develop enrichment plans just like you’ve developed intervention plans along the way.

Chapter 5: Use Effective Feedback

Some questions to consider:
  1. Why is effective feedback one of the most powerful ways to improve student achievement?
  2. What is the difference between a learning-oriented student and a performance-oriented student?
  3. What are two examples of "red flags" for your class and what strategies can you use to get students quickly back on track?

Ch. 4: Support Your Students

Questions to consider:
  • In what way do we plan for students to fail and how can we plan for their success instead?
  • Why is getting the right answer sometimes not an indication of a student's understanding?
  • What is your current process for supporting struggling students and how do you need to adjust it to be more proactive?