Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Learning Styles" & "Differentiation": Buzzwords Debunked!

I like this video. It confirms a theory I have had for a while. Most of the job interviews in education that I have been a part of, either as an interviewer or interviewee, have involved at least one question about learning styles and differentiated instruction. I have always been a bit critical. In one of my former districts there was relentless training on learning these topics. They paid top dollar for experts and consultants to run workshops. Quite often, I seemed to find that I was already doing some version of the teaching strategies they preached. Sure, I may have added some enhancers from the workshops, but nothing I would really consider ground-breaking. I've taught both heterogeneous and homogeneous classes. I've had classes with special education aids and one-on-ones, while a self-reliant future valedictorian sat two rows over. In the end, isn't it just about delivering a message effectively to all students? Shouldn't teacher find several ways to explain information to her students so that they can understand it from different perspectives anyway?

Daniel Willingham is an expert. He argues that there is no such thing as learning styles.

Willingham does a nice job of debunking these education buzzwords and getting to what should be the meat of educational practice. He is also the author of Why Don't Students Like School?.

Bill Evers, who has an impressive background in education, wrote a great review of the book.

As you read the book (you can get a preview on, you may find yourself nodding your head in agreement. It is as if he is stating the obvious, but it is stuff that we have been misinterpreting because we are so programmed to think that learning styles and differentiation are the key. It isn't about learning styles. Instead, it is about conveying the information in a way that will make our students feel successful. ALL students will have to work hard and think hard in order to improve and develop their minds, but sometimes they need a task that teaches content and is fun enough to keep them motivated along the way. Usually, that means mixing traditional teaching strategies with innovative ones. Like, have students draw symbols of the ideas you discuss, instead of taking notes the traditional way. Or introduce a new topic by showing a series of images and ask the students to make connections between those images, instead of simply standing at the front of the room and telling them about the new topic.

This is why each student doesn't need a differentiated lesson specifically tailored to him. All students need good teaching. Good teaching utilizes several ways to present and explain ideas to all students, rather than finding the one way each student needs the idea explained to him.

Good teaching is good teaching.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Conversation With a Friend

I was over a college girlfriend's house today so our little ones (her's is 17 months and mine will be a year old in a week) could have a playdate.... and so we could catch up over a glass of wine.

We asked each other about our families, about our marriages, we laughed about the milestones our babies are meeting... and then the conversation turned to work. I asked her and she, as a nurse, talked about the demands that have come with the latest flu season. In turn, I talked about the new demands that come with 21st Century Skills in education. Her mom was a teacher in a private Catholic school before she retired a few years ago. So, she thought she had a good understanding of the workload and philosophy behind teaching in K-12 education.

Well, needless to say, I re-educated her.

I explained how research is not what it used to be. I explained how my 9th graders are designing websites, not merely writing papers. They are creating web-based presentations with embedded video clips and then sharing their research with their peers in other classes. She responded, "Well, they learned how to do that in their technology class, right?" My answer was, "Well, no. They have a class that teaches them the really important basics, but often the other subject-area teachers are doing double duty. In my case that means teaching history and web design."

I wish I had this video to show her during our conversation.

It does a great job of explaining the justification and importance of 21st Century Skills. Not only that, for those members of society who aren't in the education bubble, it explains what 21st Century Skills are. After viewing this short 6 minute clip, few would argue that these skills aren't essential. In fact, I think even my most critical friends would have to admit that they wish their teachers had been so forward thinking.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bloom's Taxonomy for Web 2.0

Another great discovery from my PLN on Twitter! Thanks to Eric Sheninger (NHMS_Principal)

Check out this link! It is an article that adapts Bloom's Taxonomy to Web 2.0. the author, Andrew Churches, has an award winning wiki called Educational Origami. His work is impressive. About halfway down the page, there is a great flowchart that applies higher order thinking to web 2.0 projects and activities.

The rest of the article breaks down what the verbs in the chart mean and how they work with these higher (or lower) order thinking skills. In each lesson and project I design for my students, I try to make sure that I hit at least one of the top three categories. It's hard to do every day in every lesson, but this chart is inspiring!

A few stand-outs:
Tagging and Searching = Even though Churches classifies these under Remembering, which is a lower order thinking skill, I like how tagging forces students to choose one-word key ideas to identify their images, podcasts, and blogs. Similarly, searching using Google, Alta Vista, or some other engine requires them to narrow their question to a few key terms. This process of simplification really helps kids understand exactly what they are learning.

Annotating = Identifying and evaluating resources is important. After facilitating a few research projects already this year, it has become increasingly evident that we think our students know more about the Internet than they really do. I had honors sophomores submitting as a source for they National History Day projects, even after we had lengthy discussions about the importance of using scholarly sources.

Publishing = Churches notes, "whether via the web or from home computers, publishing in text, media or digital formats is increasing. Again this requires a huge overview of not only the content being published, but the process and product." This is the biggest reason we are in the midst of a Project Based Learning initiative at Reading Public Schools. When our students are instructed to publish their work to the web or to other classes, they should hold themselves to a higher standard. They need to conduct research using a wide range of sources, they need to be mindful of copyright restrictions when pulling images from the Internet, and they need to report the information in an organized and accurate way. Of course, if we could get them to work this way for every project, it would be great. But a PBL assignment is a great start.

Perhaps all teachers should take a look at this NEW Bloom's Taxonomy flow chart every time they tweek an old lesson or design a new one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Is Cheating Bad Anymore?

That was a silly student-created video on cheating, but the rest of this blog is serious.

One of the assistant principals at the high school sent around this article from the San Francisco Chronicle. It's a long article, but worth reading if you are interested. There were a few statements that really stood out to me, though.

Drugs for Studying
Pope says use of stimulants is on the rise in high school, and more and more kids are using them to take the SAT. As in the debate over the use of steroids in sports, some students don't feel it's morally wrong - because it's still your brain at work - and are ignoring the health risks of taking a drug not meant for them, with no monitoring of dosage or side effects by a doctor. Pope says when she wrote "Doing School" (published in 2001), "it was No-Doz and caffeine. Now, especially in the past five years, it has switched to Adderall, Ritalin and illegal stimulants."

I knew plenty of classmates in college who used Adderall, Ritalin, etc. that wasn't prescribed to them for studying purposes. The would pull all-nighters, take the exam, and then crash. Often the results were actually pretty good. When the payoff a student is seeking is actually achieved, what is to stop her from taking the drugs again for the same purpose? I'm saddened that this practice has spread to high schools; saddened, but not surprised.

Splitting Up the Work Isn't Cheating
"We call it the morning scramble," says Pope. "In the morning at a high school, you see a ton of kids sitting around copying each other's homework. Because a percentage of their grade is based on their turning in their homework. And a lot of these kids are doing so many classes and after-school activities that there's no way they could possibly do all the work required of them. So kids don't even count that as cheating. That's just sort of survival for them: divvying up the work. That's why they're IM-ing (instant messaging) all the time while they're doing homework. It's another way of divvying up the work. It's a way of ensuring that you get it done. It doesn't matter how you do it, just get it done and get it in."

This actually happened to me earlier in the school year. I gave a quiz for which students could bring their notes. I let them type the notes with the caveat that I would check them to ensure they hadn't shared with one another or copied and pasted from the text. I discovered, after everyone had taken the quiz, a group of 5 students who had split up the work. When I confronted them, they were shocked that I considered it cheating. Even several of the parents blatantly told me that they did not consider their children's actions something that would qualify as cheating. After more discussion and research, I found out that many many more students had done the same thing. Rather than ask the kids to tell on each other (and create a culture of distrust among the students), I decided to throw out the entire quiz. Yup, I was willing to be the bad guy in order to send a clear message. My decision was only made after much consultation with other teachers. More controversy erupted from that decision. Once again, I heard from many parents who didn't see the cheating as a good enough reason to justify throwing out the quiz, even though they admitted that, overall, it was not a valid assessment of the students' knowledge or skills under the circumstances. Each parent's argument was based on the concept that his/her child would lose points toward the overall grade. It is all about grades. Integrity seems to take a back seat to the grades.

It's the GOOD Kids Who are Doing It
It used to be that cheating was done by the few, and most often they were the weaker students who couldn't get good grades on their own. There was fear of reprisal and shame if apprehended. Today, there is no stigma left. It is accepted as a normal part of school life, and is more likely to be done by the good students, who are fully capable of getting high marks without cheating. "It's not the dumb kids who cheat," one Bay Area prep school student told me. "It's the kids with a 4.6 grade-point average who are under so much pressure to keep their grades up and get into the best colleges. They're the ones who are smart enough to figure out how to cheat without getting caught."

The anecdote from my own teaching is based on an honors level class. I know that they are the ones under the most pressure and likely to do whatever it takes to succeed, even if it means cheating. On the other hand, there is a little part of me that is proud of them for working together and taking care of one another. Some students feel like they are living their lives in a pressure cooker. If a friend can help release some of the steam and relieve a little pressure, isn't that person a good friend?

Technology Has Taken Cheating to a New Level
Technology has made cheating easier and more sophisticated. But Pirouz says it's not causing the rise in cheating. "Cheaters are causing the rise. Technology is a catalyst, but text-message cheating is big because the cheaters are sending out the message. Some people keep their integrity, but some fall into the trap when it's suggested."

The Internet has provided all sorts of shortcuts for cheaters. They have Wikipedia at their fingertips, and thousands of ready-made term papers available for downloading from sites like Cheaters. com, and

The role technology plays in cheating is HUGE! The conflict I feel is that I love technology and what it makes possible for me to do in my classroom and for my students to learn. Networking tools make it possible for my students to do group projects without ever meeting face to face. They also make it possible for them to text answers to each other during tests. How do we strike a balance?

How do we help students to understand why cheating is wrong when society rewards them based on results, not methodology?

How can we punish kids who are just trying to help each other out when they recognize a friend at the brink of a breakdown?

Tough questions.