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It’s mid-October and the reality of the school year has set in.  The leaves are turning, the weather is getting colder and wetter, and darkness is creeping up around the edges of the day.  School is reestablishing itself as a consistent pattern in students’ lives.  This is when cracks begin to show.  Don’t fear the reset.

Teachers begin the year with the best of intentions: “This is the year that I’ll be planned out a week in advance.”  “This year, I’ll get it will all come together and run smoothly.”  These intentions are even more extreme with new teachers.  The optimistic, excited idealism, while helpful in August preparations, can quickly become battered, and worn by mid-October.  The young teacher easily falls into a repetitive funk, realizing the routines and procedures they established in September are insufficient.  It is a quick step into a swamp of cynicism leading to the laments of Cubs fans the world over: “maybe next year will be better.”

You are not a victim of Cubs’ management.  This is your classroom and you have the autonomy to take matters into your own hands.  Reset the classroom expectations.  Right now.

“Right now?  How do I make the time? I’ve got all this content to cover.”

There is a assumed need to justify time spend on non-curricular topics. We are expected to teach routines at the beginning of the year and there is a perception that once taught, they shouldn’t be revisited.  After all, if it was done correctly, the students should know the expectations.  Right?

It can feel like a step backward to revisit proper bathroom procedure six weeks after you thought you had it established, but we need to remember that anything new takes practice and repetition in order to become habitual. As adults, how often do we need to be reminded to go to the gym or eat healthy before it becomes a normal part of our lives?  Students need time and repetition as well.

Teaching routines, procedures, and expectations is not a deviation from curriculum.  Classroom procedures work in the service of curriculum and help the classroom function more smoothly, allowing for maximum effective use of limited time.  If these routines and procedures break down midway through the year they need to be repaired.  You are not losing time by revisiting routines.  Quite the opposite.

If it is broken: fix it.  A routine that’s slipped from consistent to inconsistent is no longer a routine, and it needs to be reestablished.  Perhaps the routine needs to be modified so that it cam be maintained more easily.  The purpose of a routine for quickly turning in papers is to increase efficiency, and thereby gain more instructional time.  Less time collecting papers equals more time teaching.  If the routine is no longer a time-saver, it needs to be re-taught and the best time to start is right now.  The same goes for any expectations around behavior, respect, quality of work, or using the bathroom.

Starting right away is the best option. You simply go the shortest amount of time with the ineffective routine.  Beyond this, however, beginning to correct issues immediately serves as strong, lifelong, modeling for students.  It is powerful for young people to see an adult take immediate action.  They see that the teacher has high expectations, and the willingness to course-correct.  Having the vulnerability to admit a mistake, and take the actions necessary to fix that mistake is a powerful show of awareness, confidence, and strength.  All virtues we would hope to instill and develop in our students.

It comes down to the central concept of teaching: if you want something done right, you need to teach the right way to do it.  If your students are not performing how you want them to, you need to keep teaching them until they get it right. Regardless of the topic, it takes accountability, persistence, and a willingness to go back and fix issues.  PIck your area for change and start right now.

She leans back in her seat with a look smug self-satisfaction.  Here it comes.  You can hear the question before her hand is all the way up.  In the back row of the class she slowly raises her hand high.  Your nerves start crying out like an over tightened violin string.   There’s no missing that hand.  The class sees your eyes follow her hand and they track your gaze to the back of the room.  They know it’s coming too.  The question.  The big question.  The question they all want an answer to, but only she is brazen enough to ask.

“So… why are we learning this stuff anyway? … What’s the point?  Does this even matter?”

[You Freeze]

OK hotshot new teacher: Pop quiz. Do you:

  1. Tell the kid that they’ll need it for the test.
  2. Tell the kid it will help them in college.
  3. Tell them some words about respecting the classroom environment and asking appropriate questions.
  4. Tell them it is part of the curriculum.

You’ve got one shot to get this right.  Succeed and you’ll have established your authority in the eyes of your students and they’ll begin to trust that you know what you’re doing.  Fail this test and you’ll be battling for credibility all year.

Correct answer?  E: None of the above.

“Ok,” you ask. “You’re so smart: how do I handle that question?”  Simply put: You handle that question by answering it directly.  The kicker is, that you need a better answer than all the answers above.

None of the answers above will satisfy this student.  She wants a real answer.  The first two may work for a lot of students.  These students will be motivated by grades and college entrance.  That’s not necessary a bad thing, but these goals breed strategic compliance instead of engagement.  These are the students who do all the work because of the grade, or because those grades will allow them to get into a good college, and only because of these rewards.  These are relying on extrinsic motivation.  Either of these rewards last only as long as you keep measuring them against that target, but they lose impact as soon as the test is over, or once a student has finished the class.  Grades alone do not necessarily create students who strive to learn.  The student asking the questions need more than just the next test to keep her interest.

Answer C is also problematic because it discredits the students’ desire for meaning.  It tells them that to ask “Why” is disrespectful and inappropriate.  Students are conscripts in public education.  In order to get students on board with the curriculum we need to explain its benefit transparently and concretely.  We also need to make that explanation immediately relevant.  We need to explain why this is so important to them that we force their participation for twelve consecutive years.

Answer D is the weakest of the four.  By giving this answer you’ve immediately abdicated your responsibility for the content of your classroom.  With this response someone else is calling the shots, but they don’t know your students, and you’ve just established yourself as someone who needs to be told what to do as opposed to someone who makes decisions based on professional judgment.  The follow up question to this answer is a gigantic “so what?”  The problem is that the vast majority of students will only ask that follow up silently and it will consequently go unanswered.  This answer does not resolve the initial concern and further reduces your credibility.  Not helpful.

Instead of the four options above, you need an authentic and relevant answer.  You need to be able to tell students how the work they are doing in that moment will be a benefit to them in their lives both inside and outside of school.  The students are trying to make the connection between their schooling and their personal lives; however they often lack the necessary context to make that connection on their own.  You as a teacher can provide that context. This student is craving relevancy and meaning from school and learning to write is just as important as learning why writing matters.

The Schlechty Center defines engagement as learning in which “the student sees the activity as personally meaningful,” and “the student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.”  This is essential because engagement is the catalyst for learning.  It takes thorough mental activity in order to learn new material and student who is merely compliant is not activating the necessary higher brain function. (Medina, 2009)

“What’s the point?” should not be a teacher’s most dreaded question.  Quite the opposite.  This should be the most highly desired question because it indicates that the student needs meaning, and wants meaning for the work they are doing.  This question holds you accountable for the relevancy of your instruction the same way a teacher wants to hold students accountable for achieving intended learning outcomes.  If the students are not aware of the purpose for a lesson it is incumbent on the teacher to explicitly provide that meaning.  After all, the teacher is the one who designed the lesson and understands where everything is coming from.

Lastly if you are thinking to yourself that, as a teacher, you may be unable to adequately answer the question of “why does this lesson matter to my students beyond school?” You may want to reexamine what you are teaching.  If there is no point to teaching it, you probably shouldn’t.

Welcome back for part 2 of “Teach Like a Superhero.” If continuity is your thing, go back and read part 1 before continuing.

Ok you made it back and you’re ready for the big reveal. Which superhero should you emulate as a teacher?

Hawkeye!

“Seriously?”

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from Hawkeye by Fraction, Aja, & Hollingsworth. Property of Marvel Entertainment.

Yep. Hawkeye. First of all there are two Hawkeyes, male and female. Most of you are likely familiar with Clint Barton as Hawkeye from the Avengers movie. You may be less familiar with Kate Bishop a female Hawkeye who is equally brilliant and doesn’t have to take the name “Lady Hawkeye” or “Hawkeye Girl” or any garbage like that. She’s just Hawkeye. Consider the existance of equal male and female versions of Hawkeye as a bonus point. A good start, but there’s a lot more than equal gender representation that makes Hawkeye a good choice for teachers.

(Note on pronouns: Every reference to Hawkeye from this point forward applies to both Barton and Bishop collectively, and since english pronouns are gendered I’m picking male for the sake of consistency.)

Back on track. You’re probably thinking: “Why teach like Hawkeye? I saw the Avengers movie, and he gets mind-controlled almost immediately and then just sorta hangs out and shoots stuff. How is this at all good for teaching?”

Hawkeye has a unique set of skills and traits that make him a good model for teaching. Other heroes may have one or two of these, but it is the specific mix that corresponds well to good teaching. These are: humanity, skill, , knowledge of resources, adaptability, and efficiency.

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from Hawkeye by Fraction, Aja, & Hollingsworth. Property of Marvel Entertainment.

First and foremost Hawkeye is completely human: no faulty gamma radiation, no mutations, no radioactive hawk spider bite. This is a person in which we can see ourselves, as opposed to some artificially created super-being. Hawkeye is highly skilled and he’s honed all of his skills through extensive practice and training. There is no magic to Hawkeye’s success.

In addition though Hawkeye is human in that he is fallible. He makes mistakes, figures out the consequences and then perseveres through finding the right solution. Teachers have to do this as well. No teacher is perfect and no amount of preparation or planning will create a perfect, surprise-free lesson. The great teacher is not the one where everything goes according to plan; a great teacher is the one who smoothly adapts to unexpected situations, falling back on their practice and theory to use unexpected circumstances to their advantage.

With this in mind Hawkeye also has a fantastic knowledge of his resources. He has a wide range of arrows in his quiver each tailored to a specific task much like how highly skilled teachers can call on a diverse array of teaching techniques to appropriately address the needs of their students both expected and unexpected. Teachers regularly have to refine their practice in order to best meet the needs of all their students, and like Hawkeye, must continually develop new techniques to successfully solve problems and adapt to changing situations. There are absolutely some methods that teachers rely on more regularly, and each teacher will emphasize certain techniques more than others to customize their quiver, but all high quality teachers see their quiver of techniques as a living collection that is regularly assessed, modified, and tailored to their current needs.

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Hawkeye’s arrows from Hawkeye by Fraction, Aja, & Hollingsworth. Property of Marvel Entertainment.

Lastly Hawkeye must be efficient with his skills and resources, as a teacher must be as well. Hawkeye is limited in any encounter by the arrows in his quiver. While Cyclops can blast lasers from his eyes for an eternity, and Wonder Woman’s super strength never diminishes, Hawkeye can run out of arrows. (And he did in the Avengers movie.) To this end he must choose carefully, and it is in this selection that Hawkeye demonstrates his greatest skill that teachers should aspire to develop.

Teachers are not limited by arrows, but by time, be it the structure of a school year, the time in a day, or structured planning and grading time. It is absolutely essential that teachers use all of their available time effectively and efficiently every single day. Like Hawkeye, when our most essential resource is exhausted we become substantially less effective. Hawkeye is skilled in hand to hand combat, and a teacher can assign homework or send an after-hours email, but it is Hawkeye’s time with the bow, and the teacher’s direct time with students that are the most valuable and it is essentially to effectively maximize our impact while still in possession of this resource. Using every minute of a class period with purpose is an important hallmark of quality teaching.

Teachers are tasked with a great responsibility to shape and grow the future generation of leaders for the world. Superheroes are constantly tasked with saving the world. Our roles are not that different and as such our preparation and dedication should be equivalent as well. The teacher that aspires to be like Hawkeye, and pursues that aspiration with effort and dedication, will be a great teacher indeed.

Finals are stressful for all involved.  Students are studying as if their lives depend on it.  Many of them are also scrambling to turn in any remaining late work in a hopeful attempt to salvage their grade for the semester.  Teachers are either furiously grading work, writing their final exams, or they are (like I often find myself) in a bizarre holding pattern where their finals are written, but they can do nothing to get a jump on the massive pile of grading that finals inevitably bring.  The sense of comfort and relaxation we all felt during winter break quickly evaporated to be burned as fuel for the necessary sprint to the end of the semester.

My students had a significant final exam.  They wrote an essay in addition to a multiple choice exam that covers everything we’ve studied to date.  We have a two-hour block reserved for final exams and I intend to use the time to give a proper final exam.  I see it as a pedagogical responsibility to help my students learn how to study for an exam of such magnitude.  In a high school environment their grades are (usually) calculated on a combination of homework, in-class participation, essays and tests.  As such, for most students, the final exam has a significant impact on their final grade, but is not the most important factor.  This is a relatively (relative to their likely college experience) low-stakes way to teach the process of studying for a final exam without simply throwing them out of the nest with the hope that they’ll learn to fly.

And I do teach it – how to study.  We spent the last two weeks prior to the exam covering essay writing and methods to review for an exam.  This is paramount.  As educators, we suffer from a mistaken idea that if we simply tell students to study, they will, and they will study well.  Like absolutely everything, if we expect students to do a good job at something, we have to teach them how to do a good job.  Studying for my exam requires something different than studying for a math exam, or a regular unit exam.  If I want students to be able to study well, I need to make it clear how to go about it.  As such, I’ve made the choice of emphasizing skill-based lessons in my classroom as the cost of spending less time on historical content.  I’ve traded content for skills – a trade that teachers all over (and particularly in AP classes) are loath to make.  I am extremely confident that this is the right choice.  Historical content can easily be found through a quick search or by flipping through a book.  The skills of how to study or how to write, are easily transferable to future situations.

As is my wont, I pushed my students outside their comfort zones in the process, giving them an authentic need to apply the skills we’ve practiced.  They’re used to supports like review packets and being told precisely what to study for a given exam.  I chose instead to partially remove some supports by having them create their own study guide.  They have guides to the most important information from each chapter we’ve studied to date, and so it should be manageable to compile that into a master list of what is on the final.

It is a difficult balance to support student success while also helping them be independently successful.  I’ve said before that the best judgment of my success is whether my students can apply their learning from my classes once they no longer have me as a teacher.  Teaching academic independence is much harder than teaching how the Ottomans sacked Constantinople in 1453, but it is significantly more useful once they leave my class.

Carol Dweck’s Mindset is worth your time.  Even more so if you are (or are planning to be) a manager, friend, partner, teacher, coach, or parent.  Dweck‘s thesis is very straightforward: much of what determines your success, or lack of success, is rooted in your mindset.  More specifically: whether you have a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.”

Dweck’s overall claim (spoiler alert) is growth mindset – good, fixed mindset – bad.  This makes a certain amount of logical sense from the outset.  (Even more so if you’ve already read pieces like Outliers that focus on the amount of hard work needed for achieving true excellence.)  If you have a worldview in which you can improve and personality faults are malleable, you are better able to change your state and make positive change in your life.  When you believe that all your ability, intellect, and talent was fixed at birth, then you take on behaviors that reinforce those ideas and stunt your growth.

Dweck does not limit herself to education.  She also examines the benefits of a growth mindset in coaching, parenting, interpersonal relationships and business.  Each time the growth mindset is the clear winner through example after example.  I appreciate that Dweck chose to take an anecdotal, qualitative, approach to her work.  The mindset issue can be easily countered with examples of fixed mindset individuals who have achieved success, so a statistics-focused, quantitative, approach would soon look like Swiss cheese.  Dweck regularly reinforces that mindset is highly personal, and that changing fixed to growth mindset, while influenceable, is ultimately dependent on the individual’s desire to change.

For myself as a teacher, the most immediately useful section of the book is (no surprise) the chapter on teachers, parents, and coaches.  Dweck cites numerous qualitative examples of how the growth mindset helps those with power (teachers, parents, coaches) create success in their respective charges.  I do a lot of this already with my AVID class: my entire approach to the class is to help my students adopt a growth mindset with regards to their ability, intellect, and potential for positive change.  It was affirming to see that my theories are backed by research.  I do not, however, spend as much time explicitly discussing a growth mindset with my history classes.  I intend to change that, particularly with regard to the skill-based segments of my class: reading, writing, argumentation, and the like.

Making the growth mindset more explicit is a relatively minor change from the way I’ve been teaching so far.  The growth mindset is already present in the classroom.  We just need to name it and make the process more intentional.  The larger hurdle is disseminating the information to my peers.

Dweck’s provides many examples of the fixed mindset teacher that gives up when students do not present the desired level of ability, or the teacher who blames deficiencies on other teachers or schools. I’ve heard “they should have learned that in middle school,” or “they teach writing in English class,” enough times that I can’t count them.  I regularly hear “I’m just not good at math,” or “I love history, but I can’t write essays,” and it is a constant struggle to help students see that regardless of their current level of ability, they have the space for growth and improvement.  The rub is that helping my peers see that students benefit from a growth mindset is not enough.  In order for it to work I need to help my peers develop their own growth mindset so that they are willing to change how they teach.  Changing adults is harder than changing youth.

A few weeks ago I took my AVID class on a college visit to Northwest University.  We toured the school, observed classes, and spoke with professors about what makes successful college students.  Overall the students said it was a valuable experience and it definitely opened their eyes to the potential of a small liberal arts school.  It’s also a testament to the idea that a single intervention is insufficient to create lasting change.

My fourteen 11th graders sat down for an hour with a diverse panel of college professors and discussed the qualities necessary for success in college.  The discussion ranged from academic to social to personal issues but it kept coming back to a few key areas.  In order to be successful in college students need:  self-discipline, humility, curiosity, and the ability to be self-reflective. During the discussion many of my students wrote these things down in their notes, nodded regularly in affirmation, and asked strong follow-up questions to further investigate what it takes to be successful.

They got excited.  I got excited for them.  They all want to go to college.  They all want to be successful. They were energized.  They focused more in class and were noticeably more active.  For a couple days.

Habits are difficult to change.  As humans we can adapt to situations more easily than we imagine, but we are also quite elastic and when returned to our normal circumstances, we easily revert to old patterns.  This is exactly what happened with my students.

So we must use repetition to create lasting change.  If, as teachers, we take one day to have a guest lecture, a college visit, a lesson on time management, it’s not enough.  In order for students to change their deeply ingrained behaviors we need to change their daily circumstance.  Force them to activate their ability to adapt.  To make students more independent they need to exist in an environment in which they are held accountable for that independence on a daily basis.  If we continue to shore up their deficiencies with reminders, and academic training wheels they become a crutch and our students cannot survive without those supports.

A couple of days ago I had an opportunity to discuss academic success with another panel of college professors and the overwhelming request from them was for secondary teachers to “take the training wheels off.”  Our students are leaving high school with decent grades, but without independence, and as a result they’re failing in college, or professors have to go back and provide supports that should be superfluous.

It is incumbent on secondary teachers to put aside our fear of students failing in the short-term.  We have to teach more than the content of history, or math, or science, or world language.  It is extremely easy to sacrifice skill development in the name of teaching content.  We have to provide environments in which students can learn the necessary skills of self-reflection, curiosity, humility and self-discipline.  Without developing those skills we’ve only delayed their failure, not prevented it.

I signed up for a Toughmudder.  11 miles, 28 obstacles, and a predicted finishing time of 3 hours.  This will also be my first organized run longer than a 5k.  I can currently run about 5 miles.  I’ve got nine weeks to double my mileage.  I’m confident that I can do it, but talk about stepping out of my comfort zone.  Oh, and my team is full of personal trainers from my gym so I’m definitely feeling pressure to be highly prepared.  (Read: strong and fast.)

I haven’t done anything like this in a very long time – challenged myself to this extent.  I generally think I do a respectable job pushing myself to be my best whether it’s as a teacher, an athlete, or a human being.  Rarely, however, do I really give myself a big target that is multiple steps away from my current ability level.

My feelings about the Toughmudder made me think about my students because I immediately filled my head with doubts: “Can I run that far? Will I keep up? What did I get myself into?”

These questions and doubts are similar to what students face in school.  “Can I read that whole book?  Can I write a whole essay?  Will I pass the test?”  I get to choose my challenges while our students have to respond to the tasks we set for them.

When we stay within our comfort zones we get complacent, and I’ve been relatively complacent lately.  I can’t just wait nine weeks and then go complete this event.  I will need to use what I’ve learned about strength training for the obstacles and find new training methods for the distance running component.  This is the nature of true challenge.  What I’ve done in the past will not be sufficient so I have to learn new skills.

The educational concept of scaffolding is not new.  Nearly every training, meeting, or discussion I’ve had about struggling students at some points comes back to scaffolding.  (For the non-educators scaffolding is the idea that with proper support students can reach to things they would be otherwise unable to do.  Like how a scaffold lets you scale the side of a building.)  Scaffolding is everywhere in education, but students are still failing.  How does this relate to the Toughmudder?

For scaffolding to be meaningful students need to be challenged, and at some point the scaffold needs to be removed.  One of the common discussions around scaffolding that is all too common is the idea that “if this scaffold helps some students, then give it to everyone and help all students.”  This is problematic.  If we scaffold something that is not truly challenging we’ve done nothing but lower the standard.  The best measure of my success as a teacher would be whether my students are able to succeed at the skills I taught, once they leave my classroom, when there are no scaffolds in place.  Instead of scaffolding, we need training.

I fully acknowledge that students start in different places.  They have different reading levels, different writing ability, and unequal reasoning skills.  What is challenging for one student may be exceptionally easy for another.  However if we want our students to improve we need to provide challenge.  We need to take all of our students outside their comfort zones.

When students have a difficult task to complete (reading, writing, presentation, exam) they have to add new skills to their repertoire in order to be successful.  It is then our responsibility as teachers to teach the skills and content necessary to complete that task.  Before we put a scaffold in place we should identify whether a student has really put in their best effort.  Just because my first try to get over an obstacle isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean I need a ladder.  Perhaps I just need to take a different approach.  If we always provide a scaffold we are never really holding students to the standard we set out to achieve.

If we have standards for excellence and criteria for mastery that are based on what students need to know or be able to do, we should stick to our standards.  Those criteria were (hopefully) created with intentionality and hold some value beyond the classroom.  It is unreasonable to lower those criteria just because some students are unsuccessful.

I will do my absolute best to prepare myself for the Toughmudder in 9 weeks.  I signed up for a challenge and I will do what is necessary in order to be successful.  This attitude is precisely what is needed for students who want to be academically successful.  It takes just as much mental effort to log out of Facebook to go for a run as it does to log out of Facebook and write an essay.  Challenges are only overcome through hard work.  If it didn’t take hard work it wasn’t a challenge.

I encourage all teachers to try something difficult.  Step out of your comfort zones.  Learn new teaching methods.  Teach new classes.  Take risks in your personal life.  Whatever it is challenge yourself.  We are constantly asking our students to learn new ideas, try things they don’t like, and take on tasks that seem impossible.  How can we claim to understand our students if we never challenge ourselves and feel the difficulty, and satisfaction, of doing what you previously through to be impossible?

PS:  I started a second blog where I’m doing reviews of pop culture from the perspective of teachability.  Check it out.

My students came back from the AP Exam gushing about how easy it felt, how well-prepared they were, and asking me why I made such a big deal out of this easy test.  My first reaction was fear that they were so woefully under-prepared they couldn’t even grok the difficulty of the exam.  As more students corroborated this story of general ease, I decided to reflect on how that happened.

This was my first year teaching AP World History.  Point of order:  I’ve never taught the same class twice.  In four years I’ve taught everything from 6th grade to 12th grade; always with different courses.  This gives me incredible flexibility, and makes it easy for me to design new lessons within a short time frame.  This diversity also keeps me excited since I’m continually working to learn new content and curriculum.  At the same time, however, I’ve become skilled at creating first drafts of lessons, and it can be frustrating to feel like I never have a strong piece of curriculum that I’ve been able to design, deliver, evaluate, and refine.

Overall I think I had a strong year.  The externally assessed and designed exam was freeing as it removed the ego from my teaching.  I did not feel forced to justify the content and skill expectations of my teaching, and when students challenged the relevance or worth of any of our work I felt free to agree or disagree with them without doing damage to my credibility as a teacher.  The College Board sets the standards, and we have to work to meet them.  The extent to which we agree with said standards is (somewhat) irrelevant.

The idea of a clearly defined final exam also enabled me to be more flexible and open with my assessment and grading throughout the year.  The exam date was May 17th and we all knew that from the beginning of the course.  As a result I could take the approach that it did not matter if a student learned a skill on September first, or on May 16th, as long as they were able to demonstrate mastery before the exam.  To make this work I used a significant array of learning targets following a standards-based-assessment approach.  This allowed me to be very flexible on due dates, and allow students multiple chances to re-attempt a skill and demonstrate mastery of that skill.

This worked extremely well with essay skills, but I am not satisfied with how it played out regarding pure historical content and tests and quizzes.  I think a number of students took advantage of the opportunity to re-take a quiz and did not study for the first one, knowing that they had another chance.  This reminds me of a gamer-like attitude of having multiple lives.  The students don’t feel a strong need to prepare for their quiz because they have another life left and they don’t need to take it seriously until they’re on their last life.  The students are used to having multiple chances to be successful, and so there is no incentive to get it right the first time.  They have little to no fear of failure.

The essays function differently though because multiple revisions are authentic to the writing process.  The content tests are supposed to be an assessment of what has been learned by a given point.  By offering the opportunity to re-take the test I am measuring what they have learned at a different time.  That can still be useful, but if my intent is to check progress I need to keep the measure appropriate to that intent.  In order to have students take the tests and quizzes more seriously I will remove the opportunity for re-taking them.  I want to use the quizzes to assess the students’ ability to read their text, and the quiz serves as an external incentive to read.  By offering too many second chances the incentive was removed.

I predict that this change will have an initial negative impact on students’ grades, but by increasing the stakes for the quizzes students should take them more seriously and should also develop the skills of close reading and content retention in order to be successful.  I also predict that this will increase the value of students’ notes as a resource for studying and could create a correlated improvement in note taking.  In order to help off-set the increased difficulty of quizzes I plan on spending a bit more time at the beginning of next year working on test taking skills and proper methods for using notes to study for a test.

Here’s to next year.

“Wait.  So, like, all of this is going to be on the test?” He asked this question and held up a weighty stack of papers.  It’s a couple days before the AP World History exam, and for many of my students it’s their first experience with an exam that covers a full year’s worth of skills and content.  Their intense level of denial rapidly vanishes into anxiety and stress.

AP World History (APWH) covers the origins of human beings through modern issues; across the whole world.  It is clearly an impossible task to actually cover the history of the entire world in a single course.  Even broad survey courses in college focus on “Modern European History” or “Japan: Prehistory to 1868.”  The idea of a holistic world history course is frankly somewhat strange if your goal is complete content coverage.  It would be inconceivable.

So if the goal is not to “teach kids the history of the world,” then what exactly is the point of APWH?

The purpose is two-fold.  The first is to provide an entry point into the structure and rigor of AP and/or IB classes.  The second purpose is that APWH serves to build students’ skills in analytical reasoning, argumentation, and individual accountability.

Don’t get me wrong, APWH covers a ton of historical content.  This survey of history, however, is so incredibly shallow that the skills taught in the course far outweigh the content.  The historical content portion of my mission is to expose students to ideas and historical events.  Developing a deep understanding of the all the possible content is not a reasonable expectation for the course.  The content is, in practice, a hook for teaching the skills.

AP and IB exams are, generally, the first time students are held accountable for knowing a course cover to cover.  .  In fact, the majority of classes at the school in which I teach no longer give cumulative finals at semester’s end.  .  As such APWH calls on students to learn the skill of studying and reviewing for a massive exam. This is new to most high school students, but will be required for post-secondary education.  The exam is a stretch for many students, and they have to be specifically taught how to process all the content they are exposed to.

More importantly, however, is the development of individual responsibility and accountability that APWH builds.  Due to the massive content load and the very specific writing skills needed for APWH, it is a simple truth that class time is insufficient.  As such, students are responsible for learning significant content on their own as homework.  Students get context and background from the text, and class time is used to work on understanding the most difficult concepts and developing writing and argumentation skills.

This need to learn concepts and content without a teacher’s explanation is where students struggle the most.  They’ve never had to do it, and many balk declaring it “unfair” that they’re tested and quizzed on material we will never cover in class.  While the process is difficult, the students who adapt and integrate the ability to learn on their own get the most value from the course.  By the end of the course, they can read a historical text, and can contextualize it within the broader scope of history.

The college credit available for scoring well on an AP exam is nice.  The fact that college admissions programs look positively on a transcript full of AP and IB courses is undeniable.  The real value, however, comes from the development of strong academic independence.  Other classes are simply not forced to make students work in a truly independent way, and so many teachers (full of good intentions) scale back the academic intensity of the class in order to provide more opportunities for success by struggling students.  AP and IB classes, with their external level of accountability, shift the responsibility for success, from the teacher, to the students.  This shift is a rude awakening for some, but the long-term benefits of developing academic independence far outweigh the short-term difficulty and stress of the AP course.

Zoran Popović has been hailed for his innovative learning games in which, his students access learning and do scientific work through game-based incentive systems like points, awards, and leaderboards.  Popović’s most notable game is “Fold It:” a game in which players work to fold proteins in order to assist in medical research.

Popović has also worked on “Refraction, ” a game that teaches fractions and basic algebra to young learners through the investigation of light refraction.  The stated goal of the game is not to show the value of understanding fractions and algebra, but “to leverage [the game’s] popularity to acquire huge amounts of learning data and discover the best ways to teach early mathematics.”  While employing this sort of feedback loop is admirable, to mistake it for authentic learning is misleading.

The problem is: what do students really learn through playing these games?

In “Fold It” students (players) manipulate protein structures to attempt to fold them in the most medically useful ways.  Points are awarded for success and leaderboards are maintained to track progress on specific proteins and amino acid structures. Popović himself has stated that many people who study this type of chemistry in academic settings get frustrated by the game, and it is people who are not chemists who do the best work and earn the highest scores.

This claim concerns me.

Popović describes this phenomenon with pleasure and explains that this means any regular person can participate.  That I do not dispute.  Non-scientists are definitely participating in scientific research in an unprecedented way.  I do dispute, however, that any real learning is going on.

I’ve played my share of puzzle games and once you learn the basic rules it becomes a game of applying those rules in new ways.  Games in and of themselves are based on rules and rule structures, so once the rules are understood success comes from exploiting those rules to the player’s advantage.  The topic is less important than the rules structure.  “Fold It” serves as a vehicle to crowd source research and is absolutely excellent in that role.  It would be difficult to argue, however, that lay people are actually learning much about how a protein folds.

Anecdotally:  my wife with a background in applied mathematics and electrical computer engineering (she took organic chemistry as an elective) found it much more useful game-wise to continue clicking a protein innumerable times in order to make it fold for the most points as opposed to thinking through the actual chemistry of the scenario.

Creating game-based incentives for learning do not replace creating an authentic need or desire for education.  Alfred Newmann’s framework for Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) focuses around three main criteria for creating strong learning environments: construction of knowledge (higher level thinking), disciplined inquiry (deep knowledge), and value beyond the classroom.  It is in this last piece that AIW shows its strength.  When we create tasks and lessons that have clear value outside of the classroom, student engagement increases dramatically. There is no need for gamification as we have created authentic need.  Who cares about getting the most points on a speech when you actually need to learn the skill of speechwriting for a future situation?

Recently I’ve been working with my AVID class on public speaking.  I made a clear link to public speaking as a universal life skill – how experts in most fields are called on to speak, how interviews are just a series of short speeches, and how jobs that are typically considered manual labor require public speaking skills.  For example, professional athletes frequently have to give extemporaneous speeches in front of national audiences in the form of an interview..  Most of my students were instantly able to point to examples of athletes with both strong and … not so strong public speaking skills.  They recognized the benefit of a good interview.  Since most of my students are confident that they will be famous in some way, they were motivated to participate in the lesion.

In my classroom, when a clear contextual link between the assignment and value beyond school is made, there is no need of an artificial game structure.  Authentic structure is more appropriate, and if we (teachers) do not have an authentic rationale for a lesson we probably shouldn’t be teaching it.