Monday, August 21, 2017

The Ladder of Inference & Instructional Support

The Ladder of Inference reminds us that we too often fail to reflect on what we observe and what we infer from those observations. We are often unaware that we are too selective of the data we choose to observe or we simply don’t consider any data other than that which we have immediately or presently observed, so that data may be completely out of context. The Ladder of Inference is used a lot in business but also has application in instructional support and coaching as well as other areas of education.
Systems Thinker
It’s important to note that traversing the ladder of inference takes moments so being aware of how fast and how easy it is to move from the bottom rung to the top is important so that we slow down to assess and reflect. That way there is far less risk of any kind of injury.

Available data
As a coach, I have to take into consideration what I observe and experience. Just as the teacher can’t watch all of the students all of the time, neither can I so I have to be careful to sweep the room to try to see what the majority of students are doing. I also need to refrain from making any inferences or passing any judgment until I talk to the teacher and, even better, talk to the kids. Even then, as I’m gathering data from the kids, I have to be careful not to ask leading questions but general questions to get learning context and perceptions from them.

Select data
As a coach, I have to be careful about selecting data. I try to take notes on everything I see and hear, which is another reason I take pictures and video, and another reason I try to be with a teacher from the beginning of the class through to the end of class. When I select data, then, I try to select that which reflects a majority or close to a majority of the students but I might also select something that I was a superb teaching moment or one during which the teacher faltered and struggled to get back on track. Or all of the above because throughout a class period, there are always good moments and not-so-good, even bad, moments.

Paraphrase the data
At this moment in time, I have to pause to think about how I’m filtering what I see and hear. Did I come in with preconceived notions or specific expectations? Do I have some sort of bias about this teacher and, if so, what is it? How do my filters and other white noise influence what I see, hear, and select to discuss with this teacher? This is not about me, but about this teacher and the impact this teacher has on these students.

Name what’s happening
I have to be honest with myself about what I’m characterizing and how, the assumptions I made about this teacher and this teaching, the assumptions I made about the students and their experiences. I have to be crystal clear with myself so I can remove the detritus of my assumptions and filters.

Explain and evaluate what’s happening
Am I making excuses for me? For the teacher? For the students? Am I clarifying the data for the benefit of the teacher? For the benefit of the students? Or am I mentally trying to sabotage something? Is it possible I’m drawing conclusions based on past experience or what I’ve heard from others? Is it possible I’m not giving this teacher the benefit of the doubt because I’ve seen similar behavior and actions in the past?

Decide what to do
This is pretty clear. Once I’ve climbed thoughtfully up the rungs of this ladder, I can make a decision about what to do. I can revisit the data now that I’ve clarified my motives, questions, assumptions, perceptions, expectations, and anything else so that I can have an honest conversation with this teacher.

I can also frame my questions and my observations in ways that are helpful in moving a conversation about this teacher’s growth and success.

Adapted from

Additional resources

Monday, August 14, 2017

For Those Early Finishers, The Power of "What If. . . ? and Other Ideas

Educators talk about them all the time and fret about them nearly as often: what to do with those students who finish their work early.

The TeachThought team came up with 27 ideas and I thought I'd amplify that a bit, but first a bit of time travel to the past.

In the 1950s, a man by the name of Donald H. Parker began the work that became the SRA Reading Laboratory. I'm old enough to remember that self-paced reading program and I remember racing through the readings and the tests that accompanied each reading to get to the next level faster than anyone else.

When I saw the Level-Up suggestion from the TeachThought team, I immediately thought of SRA and that meant I had to do some research. McGraw-Hill is no longer updating SRA, but with a bit more diligence I found a history of the reading laboratory.

The first several pages are fascinating reading but then you must get to the page that Audrey Watters quotes in her 2015 blog post about SRA cards:
Parker went on to state, "To give students still more responsibility for their own learning, I had each one keep a chart of his or her daily progress. When the chart showed that the student was maintaining high comprehension, vocabulary, and word-analysis scores, it was time to move up to a higher color-level."

He further notes that they spent a week learning the system they devised because he gave credit to the thirty-two students who helped him figure it out.

So when you think about planning level-up activities, think first about implementing some sort of a learning portfolio system so students can track their learning and then give them the opportunity to design their own level-up activities.

Some of the TeachThought suggestions are fairly rudimentary and, depending on your students, might work really well. Number 18 is "Beads: Allow students to bead something." I confess that I was dismissive when I first read that, but, as so often the case, I saw it a bit differently when I came back to it to try to figure out why it was included. And then I thought about creating patterns and inviting students to bead those patterns. Or having students create patterns and beading those. Or developing some sort of a class programming language and having students use beads to "write" simple programs. Or. . .  the ideas kept flowing and they will for you as well. Just keep it simple or you'll make yourself crazy trying to gather all of the materials students might need.

Oh, by the way, the class programming language? Personally I think that's pretty genius and in my next blog I'll have some more specific ideas about that. This blog post already has enough rabbit trails.

The TeachThought team had some other ideas related to chatting, texting, reading jokes, journaling, or troubleshooting. The chatting corner leads to too much noise simply because kids are kids. Texting could be a problem because of school or district policy. Reading jokes could lead to noise as could designing a game. Journaling is a good idea but kids will want ideas for a journaling topic. Troubleshooting and planning for a new level could also be good ideas though kids will need and want more direction. So let's say the noise issue isn't an issue; there are ways to manage that anyway.

For example, one of "my" teachers has a counter bell in her room. When some students are still working and the chatter volume gets a little too loud, she taps the bell and the volume falls immediately. That's all she does: reach out and tap the bell. Now she had to train her kids to respond to that bell, but she told me it didn't take long for her 4th graders to learn that responding positively to the bell had positive results for them.

Maybe you have an erasable board on which students are able to keep a list of topics in which they're interested. Maybe it's something they pull from newsela (Gr 2-12), Student News Daily, PBS Newshour Extra (Gr 7-12),  CNN Student News (Gr 6-12), and others.

The students can use that board as idea starters for writing jokes, writing stories, designing games, etc. Or, if they want to chat but you're worried about noise, have them table top text. This is a strategy I learned through Discovery Education. One student writes on one side of the paper and the other student writes on the other. They can use different colors of ink. They can pose and answer questions. And, hmmm, it's possible that their table top texting could become the basis of an interview for a PSA or the PSA itself, or a script for a readers theater, or. . . .

Letting early finishers try something in which they're interested and covertly using strategies that might help them learn something they don't realize they're learning can most definitely lead to something powerful, profound, and positive.

By the way, though the SRA Reading Laboratory became something that educators seem no longer interested in buying, you have to admit that there is something to the basic premise. And maybe, just maybe, your students can use the basic idea to create something for themselves, their classmates, or maybe their younger siblings. You just never know what might happen when you let them pose and try to answer, "What if. . . ?".

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Understanding STEM: Beyond Those Four Letters

Mundelein HS
The focal point of this article is Ireland (and the relationship Microsoft has with some colleges and schools); however, much of what is true for Ireland is true for the rest of the world. Girls lose interest in STEM and many girls--and educators--do not understand how STEM (or STEAM) is relevant to their lives. What gets in our way, I think, is our understanding of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. For example, when we think about science, we think about the sciences--chemistry, biology, etc. The same is true for math. The other day there were some kids in my neighborhood who were trying to build a low decorative wall. They were busy building it as I drove by and when I came back by an hour or so later, they were standing there, staring at the wall, hands on hips. I turned and parked on the street and ambled over.

"So what's up?"

They turned to me in surprise. I surveyed the work they'd done so far, the piles of stones, the wheelbarrows, and the tools. Finally one of the sighed and said, "We think we made a mistake because the mortar doesn't seem to be holding. Some of the stones are sliding."

The other also sighed and said, "I'm not sure we measured right for the mortar and I'm sure we didn't measure right for stones because it's not coming out right."

Long pause.

"We didn't realize there would be so much math. . ." said one, "or science" said the other. "We thought we were just gonna get to build stuff."

Someone who appeared to be a supervisor of sorts had joined us and just grinned at those comments. He clapped both boys on the shoulders with a big smile, "Great learning, fellas! Now let's see what we need to do to fix this!"

He nodded at me and they got started discussing options. The boys got animated as they started to problem solve and maybe because they realized their mistakes weren't the end of the world and, I hope, that they could learn from them. I've driven past the finished product a couple of times since then. It looks good and it's still standing.

The experiences of these two young men are what we need kids to understand about STEM. Math and science are part of the everyday world. Putting in a garden? There's a reason the nursery has some plants and not others, and why the labels let us know how much sun, space, and water they'll need. Want to create your grandmother's famous recipe but for 10 instead of 4? There will be math. There is no getting around that. As you review the recipe while shopping you realize one of the ingredients isn't available? Well, there is some science to find the right flavor profile or get the right reaction among ingredients. Many a novice baker has learned the difference between baking powder and baking soda the hard way.

Let's go ahead and make it STEAM. The arts? You bet--in designing that border wall, in designing the landscaping for that garden, in preparing the final product of that recipe (we eat first with our eyes).

Trying to find a more efficient way to remove last season's products and replace them with the upcoming season's products? There is math involved as well as a science of consumer buying and behavior. If you need to make some adjustments to the design and layout of the shelving, there is some engineering involved and maybe even some technology. Oh yes, and art because the designing the layout of those shelves and organizing those products to attract the consumer is no small thing.

(My focus is mostly on STEM rather than STEAM because I think we see the "A" in some things more easily than we see STEM. On the other hand, I also know we find it hard to see the STEM in things that seem to be more readily a part of the arts. Even so, I'm going to continue to use the STEM acronym although I'll also reference that which is clearly A. Why? Because most of our schools refer to STEM which may very well be part of the problem.)

The other day I was watching one of those building shows when the crew is creating a home out of weird stuff. In this case they were using old dairy trucks as the "base." Yes, of course, there is a lot of math and a lot of engineering and not just because they had to figure out how to move the dairy trucks to the building location, but just all of the "wish list" features and then adjustments based on necessity. There were some really cool features. But what struck me was their use of cedar, which was repurposed. I was surprised they had access to cedar in Bastrop County, Texas. Especially because I'd just watched another show in which they had used cedar in a floating home for a couple in Seattle. Hold on a minute! Those are two different kinds of climates and yet they were using repurposed cedar like it was no big deal. Was it because others had imported to those locations or was it because cedar can really be present in those varied climates and areas? Well, that meant I needed to do some research to get the answer to my questions because it puzzled me. Science? Yes. Among other things.

My point is that elements of STEM--the actual sciences, maths, engineering, and technologies--have a presence in many ways we likely overlook. I might also note that too often we come up with activities that are particular to only one letter of the acronym as though it's not possible or not appropriate for there to be overlap, even though one of the superpowers of STEAM is that it promotes inter- or transdisciplinary ways of thinking and learning.

For example, I found this activity is listed for art and design: research what happens when mixing watercolors and oils. Um, well, does it matter what percentage of watercolor and what percentage of oil? So maybe there is some science as well as math involved as well as the art and science elements of the artistic result of a watercolor and oil mixture. Does it stay on the canvas? How does it work with different types of surfaces? If an artist really does want to combine watercolor and oil, is there anything an artist has to do to achieve a particular result? Different tools? (Engineering) Specific surfaces? (Science and maybe engineering) If you think oil and water just don't mix, you might want to check out this YouTube video, just for kicks.

In this TeachingChannel video, an English teacher is asking her students to develop a reality TV show. There is math as they think about timing; there is engineering and technology as they think about production; there is social science as they think about what will appeal to viewers but also the possibility of some other sciences as they think about what will be on their show and how it will work.

Michele Perchonok, NASA Food Scientist
I loved watching Good Eats. Alton Brown's show, which hasn't been on for a while. One of the things I loved about the show is how he explained the science of food and made that science accessible. It made me wonder if I'd taken a different path if I'd had a different exposure to chemistry when I was in school.

Kids who are trying to figure out how to land a jump or do a trick with their skateboards probably aren't really interested in the physics, but if they understood the physics they might have a better chance of figuring out what they need to do differently. And if they understood the physics and could do the math, they might be able to build better ramps and other features. Just think about the skills and various content knowledge they might need to craft a proposal for a skateboard park in their neighborhood, especially if they had to submit a design for approval! STEM, STEM, and more STEM.

The kids who want to design furniture or clothing need to understand which materials are most appropriate. You want to create a gown that will drape in a certain way? There are fabrics that will work and other that won't. These are the kinds of careers we typically don't associate with STEM, and yet. . .  Going to a fabric store, pulling bolts of fabric off the shelf, and examining those fabrics can be quite a learning experience in STEM. Ask any seamstress or tailor about what they do and how they do it will be an eye-opening experience in various elements of STEM. The same is true for furniture designers. Or jewelry designers. Or those who make designs with clay, glass, and a thousand other kinds of things including food designers, and not just pastry chefs and bakers. They don't think about their work in terms of STEM, but you can be sure there are elements of STEM in the work of almost every single artisan.

One of the reason girls lose interest in STEM-related subjects around the age of 15 has something to do with biology--their own. But it has a lot to do with the way we teach those subjects as though science, technology, engineering, and math have very narrow capabilities and possibilities.

I was going through some old books not too long ago and realized some of them need some binding TLC. Ahh. Book binding. STEM, or STEAM. Which made me think about how typesetting has changed, which made me think about how book publication has changed, which made me think about how even the invention and innovation of writing utensils has changed and that while some think the next edtech unicorn is speech-to-text so kids will not have to learn how to type, I still see some fascination with calligraphy and fountain pens.

We are awash in STEM (and STEAM) and don't even realize it.

We need to realize it so our kids can realize it so that instead of becoming less interested in STEM they become more interested in finding new applications for STEM and new ways of thinking about STEM. And when we refer to STEAM, let's do so as though we mean it and not just as though we are paying lip service to whatever we think the inclusion of arts might mean.