Saturday, February 25, 2017

Back at it and quickly iterating

My follow through hasn't been great. I wanted to write at least three or four times a week once school returned to its regular schedule. That, obviously, hasn't happened. 

However, I suppose the corollary to "don't let perfect be the enemy of the good" is also to not let a temporary setback become a permanent failure. 

With that spirit, a few things that have been bouncing around my head:

* One of the more interesting ed ideas I've heard is from Matt Candler of 4.0 Schools. The theory is to push new ideas is in schools by creating a quick prototype at small scale, gathering feedback, then iterating quickly. 

In the podcast "The Leaders' Table," Matt points out a flaw in the mindset of many folks who work in the high-performing charter schools world. We want to come up with the perfect (and massive plan), then roll out an idea at scale. 

As a veteran of starting new grades six times, I can advise that this never works out. (Something about "the best laid schemes o' mice and men...") Inevitably, iteration happens but the lag time is, at best, weeks. More often, it's school year to school year. 

Matt argues that we'd all better off by getting an idea to the minimum level needed to make it live, then beta testing with a short window and small group of students and/or teachers. 

* In light of this, I've been thinking about the teacher's role in running a class so that students are mentally carrying the weight of the content. Another way of thinking about is moving from seeing teaching as something that is done to students; instead, a teacher works with students.

This, obviously, is not the easiest thing to pull off. The major barriers I face can be distilled to 1) I, as the teacher, have more content knowledge than the students and 2) creating strong enough cultural norms in class so that all students fully own their learning. 

Curating various social studies resources and savvy use of students' Chromebooks has alleviated issues around #1 so that I can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. 

The second concern is more vexing. The students for whom this more self-guided learning functions best also tend to be strong readers and already have great grades. I note that students who are struggling readers and/or struggle with motivation at school can fall further behind compared to their experience in a tightly-run teacher centered class.

As a way to address this, I've been testing the optimal balance of using fluency tools like Quizlet versus games like Kahoot versus direct teaching. 

Here's what I've found so far:

- Mastering the terminology of a unit feels slow at first, then pays off in the last weeks of a unit. I now have students start a unit by spending 3 minutes of class per day in the first week doing Quizlet flashcards individually. 

- In the second week, I start using games like Kahoot. The best questions are at the "stamping the learning level" -- i.e. "What" and "Who" and "How" questions. 

- Direct teaching is best for connecting thematic elements of the unit. As shown by my exit ticket data, students absorb direct teaching better in weeks two and three of a unit. Spending much time on thematic elements in the first few days of a unit seems to be relatively unproductive versus having students build their knowledge base. 

If I were teaching a language, the equivalent would be heavy focus on mastering vocabulary, then moving verb tense and sentence structure only after a base of 100 commonly used words is built. 

The class still feels too teacher-centered. I'd love to figure out a way for students to have higher-quality interactions with the materials earlier. This could look as simple as analytical conversations in a turn-and-talk, then building to a short piece of analytical writing. 

However, I've seen that doing this too early just causes the students to parrot whatever I directly taught or just offer a recitation of various facts they've picked up. 

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