Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mission: Possible

Given my recent work on revising our grading system where I work, I've been following Paul Cancellieri's posts about ABC-I grading over on his blog Scripted Spontaneity. In his recent update on his grading experiment, Paul mentions the benefit of engaging in discussion with his colleagues, even when they aren't necessarily seeing eye-to-eye on matters. I've also been skimming through other blogs, lately, many of which I've discovered by jumping into the "Twitterverse" and developing my "Personal Learning Network". One such post that really got me thinking was Gary Stager's updated review of Daniel Pink's "Whole New Mind", entitled - rather provocatively - "The Worst Book of the 21st Century (an updated review)".

Although I have not read "A Whole New Mind", it seemed to me, upon reading Stager's critique, that he was "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" with regard to neuroscience and education. Although I can certainly understand many elements of Stager's criticism of Pink's work - including, in particular, his apparent gross over-simplification of neuroscience and psychology - I was stimulated to leave a comment on his post because I believe that neuroscience does have the potential to offer great insight into learning, and that improving our understanding of the neural mechanisms of learning will help even more teachers to realize the importance of engaging in best practice. I continued, though, in the "devil's advocate" line of thinking, and came upon this YouTube video, embedded below, from Professor Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia. I encourage you to take a few minutes to view it.

As you might imagine, I disagree - with respect - with Prof. Willingham that behavioral research is sufficient in educational research. I appreciate that he does point out that there is a lot of material available that makes tenuous - at best - links between neuroscience and education, and that there are some folks out there that are doing the meticulous work necessary to understand the many-layered and complex relationship between the brain and the mind. But I must agree with E. O. Wilson, who I'm delightedly discovering through my current reading of his text "Consilience", that establishing that relationship between the brain and mind is, quite possibly, the most important scientific problem in front of us to solve. Studying the brain and applying that knowledge to education may not result in the development of new methods - though it might - but it has certainly been true in the past, and is likely to be in the future, that a better understanding of how a process works (in this case, learning) leads to improvements in the manifestations and results of that process.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bill Gates @ TED - Making Teachers Great

I'm re-blogging Kevin Van Lierop's post of Bill Gates' recent TED talk. Based on the news reports of it, I thought it was only based on malaria; many thanks to Kevin for pointing out that he also addressed education! At about 8 minutes in, Gates transitions from malaria to the importance of great teachers and education.

Some interesting points on teacher attributes that affect student learning:

-seniority has little affect (after 3 years)
-master's degree has little affect
-subject-area degree has some affect (in math)
-past performance has a huge affect
-KIPP mentioned: collaborative, data-based teaching, get students' attention [he doesn't mention the lengthened school day/year...I think this is also a critical difference]

Gates, ever the technologist, also advocates putting digital video cameras in classrooms for better observation and reflection, sharing of best-practices through annotated teaching videos. While we might step back and question why we should follow Bill Gates' advice - after all, he's a college drop-out - I think it's clear that he's a life-long learner and is using research-based findings toward the improvement of education.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Success! Standards 2.0

As I discussed in my previous post, my school's been working to revise our standards-based academic system. Despite all the bumps in the road, it appears that we've come up with a solution that achieved significant consensus - far more so than any of us working on this project ever thought possible. I'm embedding another GooDocs Presentation below to show what we came up with. Not mentioned in the presentation is that we've also been working to revise our curricular standards; instead of keeping with the Maine Learning Results as we've had since the beginning, we looked at the new state standards (Parameters...) as well as national standards, and then, through a combination of elimination and/or synthesis, came up with 3 - 5 content standards for each course that we offer. We'll continue to grade each standard, and to set expectations for student learning relative to each standard as well as to the grade that the student will earn for the course. We'll also combine all of our individual academic initiative standards (homework, participation, attendance, and extended assignments) into one standard that will have an impact on the course grade. Although it's not perfect, it's a much more understandable system that remains standards-based in all regards.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Moving to Standards 2.0

Over the past two years at my school we've been engaged in a critical analysis of the standards-based academic system that began its development process over 10 years ago and has been fully in place since 2001 (our Class of 2004 received the first standards-based diplomas). Last year we worked to change the way that we communicate our grades, moving away from the 1, 2, 3, 4 "numbers that aren't numbers" that represented not meeting, partially meeting, meeting, and exceeding expectations (there were even .2, .5, and .8 modifiers added to the 2s and 3s to represent gradations of partially meeting or meeting expectations at low, middle, and high levels). Students, parents, and colleges didn't really understand what the numbers meant, so we moved to an A - F system that remains standards-based by setting expectations for what students have to achieve for individual standards as well as for the course.

The expectations that we set for individual standards are that Ds & Fs do not meet, C- to C+ partially meets, B- to A- meets, and A exceeds. We continued our direct formal relationship between content / skill standards grades and the course grade; to meet expectations for a course, students have to meet expectations for the strong majority of the standards, and can partially meet the few remaining. With this in mind, we set expectations for courses as Ds & Fs do not meet (students must repeat the course), C- as partially meets (students get one extra 9-week quarter to improve their work), C to A- as meets, and A as exceeds. We also continued the rule from the previous system that requires students to meet expectations for all standards in order to get a course grade at that same level; students must earn B- or better in all of their standards in order to earn a course grade of B- or better, and students who partially meet even one standard can only earn a C or C+ for their course grade.

This change to letter grades has really shined a light on some of the underlying issues with our standards-based system. First, we have too many standards - some courses have up to 13 content & skill standards, along with four academic initiative standards. Second, our expectation that the majority of student work will be at the B- level has lead many to express concern about the ability of students to achieve at that level and/or the concern that grades are getting inflated. Third, the way that we've set our expectations for standards and courses, along with the way that we've set up the formal relationship between standard grades and the course grade, means that students who partially meet expectations for all standards earn a course grade that does not meet expectations; this means that a student could get all C+'s for their standards, but yet receive a course grade of D. Fourth, concerns remain that students are only oriented toward achievement and not toward the process of learning, in part due to the lack of consequence for low grades in academic initiative. Finally, a fifth concern remains about whether or not it's necessary to continue reporting grades for all standards on the report cards (along with the course grade and a narrative) - it's more information, but is it being used?

To address the first concern, I've asked departments to look at the new standards for our state (called the Parameters for Essential Instruction), along with some set of national standards of their choosing, to come up with a list of 3 - 5 standards for each course. It seems reasonable to me that we should continue to grade each major knowledge / skill component of our courses, but also that having too many components dilutes the message that each of them is so critical that student work in it must meet expectations. To address the other concerns, we've set up a Grading Committee. Yesterday I presented that group's work to the faculty - we had some good questions and comments come up, and will have a final discussion on Friday at our in-service before moving forward with Standards 2.0. I'm embedding that presentation below so that readers can see some of the ideas we've come up with, and, I hope, provide some comments based on your own knowledge and experience. It's my hope that sharing about what we've experienced with standards-based academics at my school can help others who are starting along that path, and that it'll present us with an opportunity to learn from you as we move to refine our system.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Concussions' Repercussions

While watching the NFL Super Bowl this past Sunday, I was reminded of some profound new information on the negative consequences of multiple concussions: six of the six NFL players who died before age 50 and whose brains were studied showed signs of CTE - chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This new research from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is advancing our collective understanding of concussions, particularly with regard to the negative ramifications of multiple concussions.

Prior to the recent breakthroughs based on analysis of donated posthumous brain tissue, concussions were thought of as non-specific brain injuries resulting from a sudden jarring or shaking of the brain. Studying concussion victims with traditional non-invasive imaging techniques has not been effective in identifying the damage caused, even though the cognitive / psychological effects of a concussion are generally very evident and can be very serious. Closer investigation of brain tissue donated by athletes - primarily professional American football players - reveals that repetitive head trauma results in the accumulation of a specific protein (tau) in the synapses between neurons, reducing the functionality and eventually killing those neurons. In this sense, chronic traumatic encephalopathy is very similar to Alzheimer's dementia.

The reason I'm interested in blogging about this new research is not just that it's about the brain, but also because I think it has an important link to education. Sports are often labeled co-curricular or extra-curricular, but they are an important aspect of school communities. Some schools even require participation on an athletic team as part of their graduation requirements because the experience can be so educational. One of the most prominent of high school sports here in the USA is football, a highly physical contact sport that is the most common origin for sports-related concussions in high school males and the origin of over 60% of all sports-related concussions for that age group (CDC Concussion and Sports Fact Sheet [PDF], available through the CDC Features page on Concussions). Given that younger individuals take longer to recover from concussions, and that concussions have the potential for significant negative repurcussions, I think it's important to raise awareness of the dangers that concussions pose - particularly now that there is physical evidence for the damage caused by multiple incidents (even if only through posthumous tissue research).

Here are some links to more information:

Coaches Took Kit from the CDC

Concussion-Resistant Helmets article from Wired

Tau & Alzheimers article from MSN

Tau protein article in Wikipedia