Friday, December 27, 2019

Failing forward. Do we really mean that in education?

In education we talk a lot about encouraging students and teachers to take risks. We pontificate on the value of learning through failure. We try to model what failure and learning through failure look like whenever we make a mistake. We talk about developing grit, promoting perseverance, and building stamina even though nearly everything in our educational culture, at least in the United States, screams that failure, and even error, is nearly catastrophic. That made me think about how we need to design learning experiences that optimize error and even failure. And then I got to thinking about the differences between making a mistake and actual failure.

Teachers make mistakes all the time. Teachers make mistakes while teaching, when they type up assignments, when they assign stuff, etc. They recover by saying, "Oops. That's the wrong web site." or "That's the wrong page number; I meant to say. . .". Students simply adjust to the mistake and the correction. There is no red pencil swooping down to mark a big X on the teacher's forehead. There are no points taken off that teacher's teaching grade for the day.

Kids make mistakes on homework all the time. Some are unintentional; some are because they don't know or don't know any better. However, for the students there IS a red pencil (or its stand-in) swooping down to mark a big X next to the error and to deduct points. In some cases, students are allowed a do-over; their own version of "I meant to say. . ." or "I meant to do. . .". In many cases there is no opportunity for correction. And so students are then penalized for their mistakes.

And that means they learn that mistakes are bad. They learn they lose points for mistakes. Mistakes that may have been unintentional, or mistakes they made because they did not know or did not understand. They are penalized for the error as well as the lack of information or knowledge or the lack of understanding. And what do they learn from that? Especially if there is no opportunity to correct the error, to clarify or correct their learning, to fill in the gaps? They learn that making a mistake makes them a loser of sorts. And they learn that not only from the big X next to each error, but they learn that from their classmates who gloat when they made few or no errors and from the shame of their classmates who have done as badly or worse.

Sure, those mistakes could be viewed as failures: failure to remember, failure to understand, failure to express themselves correctly, failure to parrot the correct answer, failure to complete, failure to. . . . Will students view those failures, especially a series of failures in the same or different content areas as FAIL: first attempt in learning? Or will students view one or more failures as an indictment of their abilities as students, as learners?

I've seen middle and high school students exhibit no interest in retaking a test or redoing a homework assignment. When asked why they won't take advantage of the offer, they usually shrug. I've taken the shrug to mean one of several things, and typically along the lines of "What's the point?" If I were able to sit with any of those students to ask more about their reluctance, I bet I would hear a litany of penalized mistakes--bad test scores and marked up homework--from preceding school years, all of which leads to believing there is no point in trying and there is no point in trying again.

After years of failure, students see themselves as failures.

After years of marked up mistakes and low grades, students see themselves as stupid or incapable or dumb. They don't see the point and they don't believe the teacher who tries to tell them otherwise because they've been hearing differently for years.

This article about the key to optimal learning reinforces so much of what I believe to be true. I need to contextualize this with two anecdotes. The first is about a second grader who got so frustrated by her inability to subtract two-digit numbers that she threw her pencil, slumped her head in her hands, and muttered, "I'm just stupid." Second. Grade. I retrieved her pencil and put my head down close to hers and told her that no one expected her to come to second grade already knowing how to do this math. I explained to her that the purpose of school is to learn to do things like subtract two-digit numbers. She looked up at me with a thin veneer of belief that maybe, just maybe, I spoke the truth.

Please note that I had to explain to her that she was in school to learn. 

The second anecdote is personal. I was one of those students who grew up believing I wasn't "good at math." My mother also said she wasn't good at math, even though she was a very good cook and baker, and she was the one who managed the household finances. Apparently none of that is math, but I believed her and didn't see the obvious at the time. It wasn't until much, much later when I was thinking about a Master's in computer science (to legitimize the near decade I already had as a software engineer/systems analyst) and I was taking a course in differential equations, a course I ended up not needing. I found myself intrigued by the mathematics and, as an English major, I was a bit horrified. I felt like I was being unfaithful to myself. And then later when I was teaching basic math to college students, I realized that their journey had been much like mine in that we had failed to realize we were in school to learn the things we didn't know or understand as well as the things we thought we loved and about which we wanted to learn more.
As a learner, the thing to focus on is to make sure you’re pushing yourself and getting into this region of intermediate difficulty where you are making mistakes and getting things wrong and accepting that’s part of how you learn.
In the article about optimal learning, Robert Wilson, a researcher at the University of Arizona, speaks of accepting that getting things wrong is part of how we learn. He goes on to say that "We reward perfection maybe too much. . . Errors and mistakes are just a part of life and as we’ve shown here, a crucial part of learning."

If we--educators and others--truly believe that failure is an integral part of learning and doing, we need to build assessments with that in mind; we need to create learning opportunities with that in mind; we need to allow space in our work environments with that mind.

We need to be crystal clear about the parameters for that failure, for that risk, for those errors and mistakes.

We need to be crystal clear that while errors and mistakes are indeed part of learning, there will come a time when errors cross the threshold of acceptable risk, which means we have to be crystal clear about what we mean by "risk" and what constitutes acceptable risk, whether in learning or anywhere else.

And if we mean that failure is an integral part of learning and doing, and if we build that way of learning and doing into our day-to-day teaching and students' day-to-day learning, then they will be more willing to embrace what they learn through failure and become more attuned to what failure and error and risk actually mean.

And that will be worth the risk.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Hacking learning, again? Meh. Teach on.

Just before Thanksgiving there was a #HackLearning Twitter Chat. I did not participate but I did see the questions, obs or they wouldn't be included in this post.

And I mean no offense to the #HackLearning team, but I was a little hacked about these questions, and not the kind of hack to which these folks referred--and can I tell you how over I am "hacking" pretty much anything?

Let me speak first about my understanding of English Language Arts. I know that ELA has experienced a lot of changes and certainly many were informed by our venture into Common Core. The key to ELA is the phrase "language arts" with the emphasis, I think, on the word "arts." What are the arts of language? Reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

To the first question: What are the challenges of integrating English Language Arts in the content areas? Huh. You mean making sure that students can read, write, speak, and listen in math, science, social studies, art, music, PE, health, consumer science, etc.? Um, shouldn't that be happening by virtue of the fact that students are in each of the classes?

Okay, I'll stop pretending I don't know what they're talking about because they're talking about the likelihood that all of those non-ELA teachers don't have reading and writing strategies in their teacher toolboxes. Fine, but that's really easy to rectify. I'll come back to this.

To the second question: What are the advantages of integrating ELA in the content areas? I won't be quite so snippy because there are some interesting textures in this question. One of the first advantages is that students will stop thinking that reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills are the sole domain of ELA class and begin to realize that reading, writing, listening, and speaking are important in everything and all the time. However, it is important for students to recognize that reading strategies may be different in non-ELA classes just as writing strategies may be different.

The last question is a bit perplexing: What are some ways we can find time and resources to integrate ELA into other content areas? I think this third question is inextricably connected to the first. I don't think it's really a matter of time. I do think it is a matter of resources just as it is also a matter of inclination for non-ELA teachers in middle and high school who believe their tasks are to teach their content areas even as they are possibly complaining that students don't know how to read and write in their content areas.

A sidebar. When I taught ENG 101 at the university level, I had some colleagues who complained bitterly that their students didn't know how to write for their respective content courses. We'd already seen a wave or two of writing across the content areas which was exhausting for most freshman writing teachers who found the first thing we had to do was un-teach the five paragraph essay and help students understand the value of specific writing rules, like punctuation and capitalization (I kid you not). Weary of colleagues who gently berated me for frittering away the 15 weeks I had in ENG 101 and clearly not using that same number of weeks wisely in ENG 102, my writing colleagues and I had a little symposium with our non-writing colleagues. We had them review some freshman papers and score them using our rubric. The numbers were, as expected, all over the place. Interesting conversations ensued and a modicum of understanding might have been achieved. That didn't stop them from complaining because they knew they didn't have the skills to help students correct their writing in their classes and didn't want to spend any of their precious 15 weeks providing any kind of instruction for writing correctly in business or science or whatever. Stalemate achieved.

But let's take a step back. The majority of reading and writing in non-ELA classes is termed "non-fiction." So we're talking about students knowing how to use text features: titles, subtitles, graphs, charts, etc. Some ELA teachers spend a bit of time on such things, but quite possibly not enough although elementary teachers could fairly easily incorporate some coaching in their non-ELA blocks of the day. Non-ELA teachers assume students know how to read graphs and charts which they could have learned in elementary school, but might not have done.

Well, we need to take a further step back because my question to non-ELA teachers is this: what skills exactly do you need of your students in the areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking? Or, let's focus just on reading and writing. And, I put it to you again, what exactly do you need them to do? Yes, you need them to read the word problems and take the time to read them. There's no special strategy for that though you could practice a variation on a close reading strategy to see if that helps because you need to help them understand the importance of content area fluency and comprehension which isn't just an ELA thing but a human being thing.

You need them to write in complete sentences and, because you're not an ELA teacher, you're not comfortable being the grammar and mechanics police. Well, if they're in middle school or high school, they should know better; however, if they have time and opportunity, they could do a quick check of their work using Grammarly. What I don't like about this kind of a tool is that they don't learn what they did right and what they need to learn how to correct.

There could be ways for students to keep track of what's corrected by Grammarly and, perhaps, in collaboration with the ELA teachers in your building find a way to create a writing workshop time or study hall. It would have to be by choice. Depending on your classroom and technology situations, there are ways way to gather this information so ELA teachers will have more targeted information and, perhaps, find ways to bring non-ELA texts into their classrooms.

As a matter of fact, that is one of my favorite things. Maybe every two weeks, the students work from their math, science, social studies, or other texts in their non-ELA classes. They use those texts for their independent reading. Wigs kids out a bit, which is fun for the teacher for a little while, but also reinforces that reading and writing skills are important. Period.

I think finding the time isn't an issue, not really. I think figuring out how to create assignments or think about student work is how and where language arts skills practice and development can be reasonably integrated into any other content area.

If you are looking for more concrete resources, you might check out Reading Non-Fiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by Drs. Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. They quite literally wrote the book on the subject.

You might also watch this video focusing on teaching non-fiction, which is a significant clarification about "non-fiction" and what it is.

As you continue to think about language arts skills in content areas, it can be easy to be dismissive or distracted by so many resources that seem geared towards elementary classrooms. For example, in an Edutopia article published first in 2010 and then updated in 2014, some of the strategies might seem inappropriate for AP Physics or Math III or even high school social studies classes.

But here's the thing: you don't have to do those exact strategies. For example, the "stop and jot" strategy is one that is often overcomplicated, in my opinion. Sure, you might use some sort of a graphic organizer or worksheet for younger students, but for older students--middle school and up--just have them write in their journals or wherever. They write for 1 minute or 30 seconds or 42.3 seconds or whatever and they write to secure what they've just been hearing. Maybe they end up jotting down two things they remember and a question. Great! We like questions because questions help us know what kids are really getting, what they're really understanding, what they're thinking about, what kinds of connections they're making.

By having them write down what is essentially a learning summary, they are creating a hook to what they've heard and what they're retaining. They are creating what could become a framework for study and review.

Can you build on that? Sure. Use Wheeldecide or some other approach--craft sticks with a student's name on each stick works--to pull a random name or two. Don't belabor it, but doing a quick check also helps ensure that most students stay focused. And by chunking it with lecture or discussion or reading, and then a "stop and jot" periodically, students are more likely to be able to sustain and retain.

Here's another thing. You can start your chunking by talking and them jotting every, say, 7 minutes. Do that for a week or so. Then chunk for about 10 minutes, then let them jot. After a couple of weeks, chunk to about 12 minutes, then let them jot. I honestly wouldn't go much further than that just for retention and comprehension purposes, but by slowly extending the amount of time they go between jots, you are also helping them build stamina. Sneaky, huh?

So are some of these suggestions hacking learning? Or just some recommendations for helping students learn? You decide, and teach on.