Across my twitter feed last week came yet another discussion about taking notes by hand versus on a laptop. This time, from the Washington Post: Why Smart Kids Shouldn't Use Laptops in Class
This is not news. We’ve known this for a while and the research is really clear: If you are going to sit passively for 50 minutes and listen to a lecture, your best bet for retaining information is writing out notes on paper by hand.
But that's a lot like saying, “If you have to hand-crank your car before your trip, it’s best to wear gloves, set the emergency brake and hold the choke out."
Fifty minutes of lecture with your students taking notes may be the absolute worst way to teach anything. Yes, I’ve attended plenty of classes that were exactly that. I survived. I have a degree or two. If it was good enough for me back in 1982, it’s good enough for students today, right? Uh, no.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou:
When you know better, you do better.
Just as clear as the research concerning handwriting notes versus laptop notes is the evidence of more effective teaching techniques. Specifically, engaging students in active learning.
More Evidence that Active Learning Trumps Lecturing
Flipping Your Classroom
Improved learning in Large-Enrollment Physics Classes
My personal science hero is Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman. Not just because he won a Nobel prize, and not just because he took the million dollars from that prize and created PhET. Both of those things are really, really cool by any measure. He’s my hero because he genuinely cares about science education.
If you’ve not heard him speak about education, this is a good place to start: A Nobel Laureate's Plea: Revolutionize Teaching
From the article:
His techniques are grounded in data, and evaluations of active learning methods — published in several peer-reviewed journals and science publications — show that students get a deeper understanding of the material and retain more knowledge. In some cases, the failure rate fell by 12 percent. Test performance went up by half compared with pure lecturing.
Check out this screen shot I pulled from his pdf of a presentation
When I see the phrase "effective teaching," my hackles go up a bit (okay, they go up a LOT). We teachers have been the brunt of an awful lot of unfair criticism. I know I sometimes feel very much blamed for every ill of society. If you are having that reaction to this graph, I totally get it. Yes, this was in a college environment. Yes, there are not as many outside forces interfering in a college environment - but the data is striking and worth more than a second glance.
Am I advocating for the end of all lecture? No.
Of course there is a place for direct instruction.* Just not more than 5 - 10 minutes of it at a time. Cognitive science research has told us for years that there are extreme limits on short-term working memory. At best, a student can use 5-7 distinct new pieces of information at a time. In a 30 minute lecture with the desired student outcome of using the law of conservation of energy to determine how much work must be done on a rollercoaster cart to achieve a speed of 65 mph at the bottom of the hill, a 9th grade student has to negotiate and work with the following:
They can save themselves some time if they remember that the force you apply to an object to move it (ignoring friction) is its weight and weight is mass x gravity...
...but there are still units of measure to use and convert, and math operations including taking square roots...
…and through all of this, we are ignoring heat, friction, efficiency, etc...
Editor’s note: I absolutely adore physics. I’m not a rocket scientist by any stretch of the imagination, but I love problem solving like this. And as simplified as I made this problem, and as much as I have committed to long-term memory, it still took me 10 minutes to come up with this example. And I’m a grown-up. Who teaches physics. I'm in a quiet room, motivated to publish this blog post today.
So, let’s stop talking about how students retain more information by taking hand-written notes and start talking about how 50 minute lectures are antiquated and irrelevant in the age of google and the internet. Instead, let’s get our students wrestling with real problems that lead to critical thinking and deep learning. With apologies to Toby Keith, let’s have a LOT less talk so we can have MUCH more action.
*direct instruction = eduspeak for “lecture"
A few weeks ago, I, along with several other co-workers visited a neighboring school in a different district to see how they incorporated design thinking into their school day. After we walked around for a couple of hours and observed the goings-on, we reconvened with each other and the principal and assistant principal of the school and had a debrief.
In our debrief, I asked the school leaders how far they would let a student head down an unproductive path during their passion project time. What I was envisioning when I asked was a student that falls into the trap of procrastination and then is so deep in a hole, just gives up. I was wondering how far a teacher might let the learning experience of procrastination go before intervening.
I used the word “fail” in the discussion and the educator I was speaking with said they were a “growth-mindset” school, so the undone project would be incomplete, but not a failure. Instead of failing, the student would just keep at it, keep improving his/her project.
The softball coach, teacher, and smart-aleck in me thought in this moment, “Yes, and when I assess where the student is with their project, he (or she) will receive a failing grade if it is the end of the semester."
There is always a point at which something must be acknowledged as a failure - even if the failure is temporary.
Isn’t all failure - that is not a life safety issue - temporary?
But I wanted to continue the conversation because I felt like there was a fundamental misunderstanding about the way I was using word “failure." This educator thought I was talking about a failing grade. My mental self-talk aside, I was actually wondering about failing to engage. The learning process of the effects of procrastination are valuable. What I wanted to talk about was at what point do we, the educators in charge, intervene and save a student from traveling too far down the path of procrastination? However, we were in a large group and there were other great things to talk about, so I let it go.
But it got me to thinking about failure and the connotations of saying that someone has failed at something. We tend to see failure as a shameful thing - something to be avoided, certainly not celebrated. Even though every successful leader I’ve ever known has stated many times that they learn so much more from their failures than they do when they get something right, we shy away from failure.
Unfortunately, doing so can be crippling - in an attempt to avoid failure we avoid some challenges - challenges that might make us stronger, smarter, and better even if the finished outcome wouldn’t be labeled by everyone as a “success.” I’d argue that the label of success versus failure is part of the problem. If we get smarter, stronger, and have a better understanding of the problems we are trying to solve, then that’s a rousing success.
Maybe this seems self-evident: there are platitudes on every school wall in America: “You miss every shot you don’t take.” “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” “An essential aspect of creativity in not being afraid to fail.” “Mistakes are the portal of discovery."
For something that everyone seems to agree is inevitable and perhaps even necessary, we sure don’t want to experience it. Fear of repercussions is a big part of that, of course. I don’t want to fail at supporting teachers in creating engaging, digital-age classrooms - that’s not only my job, but a passion. The thing is though…even if the end result is labelled a “success,” it never looks like I thought it would when I started. The project morphs, we react, we keep going. Some things go well, some things don’t.
In his post, “Fail Forward Fast: Get Over Being Right and Get On with Getting On With It,” Edward Muzio talks about decision making processes. He writes that we should "make the very best possible decision that we can, every single time” but to also understand that both the decision and the act of considering alternatives change the situation. And then, by the time you decide and implement, the situation has changed even more. So, what to do?
Muzzy writes,' "Get over your incorrectness and get on with the work. Make your next incorrect decision based on the information you now have. And do it as quickly as possible, please. As we used to say when I was in high-tech engineering, “fail forward, fast.” '
And of course this doesn’t mean that we just decide something - anything - and do it, willy-nilly. We always make the best possible decision we can every time. We gather our data, we collaborate, we research. We always do our best with what we know in that moment, and we also know that what we will know tomorrow will be different than what we know today - and that’s just how it should be. I was a decent teacher by my 5th year of teaching. But I was a better teacher after 7 years. And even better again after 20. I was always doing the very best I could and I reflected on things that didn’t go as planned and made changes. If I had never felt that I had failed, what would there be to reflect on? Where would I grow?
We may hit the mark with a decision, but we will miss the mark with others. That’s not only okay, it is necessary and good.
I'll leave you with this from Astro Teller:
"You must reward people for failing. If not, they won't take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don't reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organisation's spirit."
What failure will you celebrate today?
As an ed tech coach, I am often asked questions about limiting internet access to students. “Can we block youtube?” “Can we block this game site?” “We need to block facebook.” My district has a progressive view on site availability: we recognize that there can be excellent academic and relationship building reasons to leave social media sites accessible by all and we also know that shutting off one game site just means another game site is discovered the next week.
BUT...I can empathize with the questions. It's understandable that teachers and principals might want limits on availability. Students finding ways to spend their entire class time on youtube searching for music videos instead of researching the Civil War is frustrating - and the least scary thing about open access. Cyber-bullying, violent or sexually graphic images and videos, and child predators on internet sites aimed at children are infinitely more concerning.
In our district, we do a decent job in blocking websites that are inappropriate for children, but what can we do about sites like youtube - which can have both excellent resources for students and teachers AND truly objectionable material?
Some teachers have a hard and fast rule regarding where students go on the internet. It’s some variation of, “If you are anywhere other than ___, I’m taking up your chromebook.” I totally get this stance. Teachers have a lot going on during class and with a rule like this, teachers that move around the room interacting with students can keep their students on the desired site effectively.
1. Is this just compliance? Are students engaged in the work or are they simply staring at the screen, doing no deep thinking? I would argue that with this management policy, students may only be engaged behaviorally, leaving behind affective and cognitive engagement - and thus, leaving behind rigor and relevance.
2. We don’t pick up the notebooks and pens from students when they aren’t doing their assigned work. We don’t take away their textbook. What message are we sending if we take away their chromebook/ipad/laptop/phone?
Sometimes, building compliance skills in our children is crucial. Physical safety comes to mind. You teach a two year old to not touch the stove, to not handle knives, to not go out in the street. You don’t spend a lot of time trying to explain why; the typical two year old isn’t capable of reason and their life safety depends on compliance.
Compliance in the classroom is more nuanced. We still need students to follow rules, but we also want student buy-in. Buy-in v. compliance in a 3rd grade classroom may look different when compared to the same in a 9th grade classroom, but it’s a crucial piece in the culture of every classroom.
How might we scaffold self-management skills for our students?
I’ve been struggling with this idea for a while now. I’m a neophyte twitter user and I tweeted out a variation or two on the subject but got no replies. Wholly aware that I’m a twitter noob, I thought the reason my questions didn’t generate any interest is because either a) no one else has the question b) the answer is so obvious that no one wants to get into a discussion about it or c) something is wrong with my twitter account or the way I tweet. Maybe I have some issues with insecurity. :)
Then I saw a tweet from Richard Wells @EduWells - “How do we scaffold self-management?” I followed that discussion, and there were some great thoughts - break it into small chunks and help students identify behaviors from Jacque Allen @jacquea, set mini goals within the student’s zone of proximal development from Barend Blom @blominator.
As a concrete thinker, I immediately jumped to what these ideas would look like in a classroom. I broached the subject with Kevin Reibau @kmriebau, and he told me about StackUp @StackupLearning . A colleague of ours, Noah Geisel @SenorG, took a few minutes the other day to show me some of the cool stuff this Chrome extension can do. I think it can be a part of the scaffolding of self-management for students - not as a replacement for relationship building, setting goals and reflecting on progress with students but as a non-invasive digital way of producing data for students so they know exactly how much time they spent on instagram instead of on the History Channel.
At the very least, it lets me know just how far I fell into the seemingly never-ending time suck of facebook or Inside Texas - my Longhorn Football fix.
Anyone else using a tool like StackUp with students? Have other ideas about helping students make good choices when it comes to class time activities?