It’s Not About Teaching, It’s About Learning

laotzuI recently had a teacher tell me one of her students had accused her of not teaching him anything. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“You don’t teach us anything in science.”

What?! The teacher was confused. What about all those experiments we did? What about the weeks of carefully planned lessons? What about all that stuff you learned?

The student responded, “yea, but you didn’t teach me that. I did all that by myself.”

Isn’t this what we want to have happening? Having students play a roll in their education. Not just being lectured to, but actually learning though experience? Something needs to change if we have a culture where students feel cheated out of something if their teachers don’t rely on direct instruction.

Google and Schools

Yesterday I had the opportunity do attend a teacher PD day at the Google offices in Cambridge, MA. At the end of the day there was a panel of Googlers and one of the questions was, “what do you like best about working for Google?”

The answers were much what you would expect from a company that is often rated as one of the best places to work. Things like:

  • Great people
  • Being connected to current events
  • A culture of collaboration
  • A job where you get to use your brain every
  • A place where nobody ever says, “I can’t help you, that’s not my job.”

This poses the most obvious question: isn’t this what schools are supposed to be like? 

Seriously, if someone asks your teachers why they like their job shouldn’t this be part of their answer too? And if it’s not, why? And how do you start changing that?

Elementary Homework, Is It Worth It?

Nearly every teacher has some pretty firm thoughts on homework. Most of it is anecdotal though – something like, I had homework and I turned out okay so students today should have the same experience I did. That sounds all well and good (though one could argue that the world is different today so our students’ experience school should also be different), but what does the research say about homework?

origin_2194119780To the Research:

Whenever anyone talks about research on homework it always seems to come back to a meta-analysis done by Harris Cooper in 2006 (he also did one in 1989). If you don’t have practice reading scholarly articles, it’s always tempting to read the abstract in the beginning and call it a day. Harris notes in the abstract:

“…there was generally consistent evidence or a positive influences of homework on achievement.”

Its tempting to just stop there; homework is a good thing. Though in the abstract he also notes that there is “a stronger correlation existed (a) in Grades 7-12 than in K-6 and (b) when students rather than parents reported time on homework.” So, students do a better job of reporting time spent on homework; that makes sense since students are the ones doing the homework. And homework seems to be more effective with older kids.

Sill, we’re left with the impression that homework is good for everyone.

But, the story isn’t over.

If we dig way down into the paper we find correlations for sub-groups. So, with math homework, there is a statistically significant positive correlation; this means that averaged across all grade levels, math homework makes you better at math. With reading this is also true, though to a slightly lesser extent.

It still feels like homework is a good thing for everyone, right?

But, when you separate the data by grade level, things get interesting. For grades 7-12, there is a positive correlation between homework and academic achievement. But for grades K-6, it gets a little murky.

“A significant, though small, negative relationship was found for elementary school students, using fixed-error assumptions, but a non-significant position relationship was found using random-error assumptions.”

What does that mean? It means depending on how you run the data you either get:

  1. Homework correlates with slightly lower academic achievement (small, but big enough that it’s statistically significant), or
  2. Homework correlates with slightly higher academic achievement (but so slight, that it’s not statistically significant – so it doesn’t count).

Yep, I said it (well, Cooper did). Homework in elementary school doesn’t increase academic achievement and might actually decrease it.

origin_12918347633But I Want to Teach My Students Good Study Habits

If you want your students to get in the habit of bringing school-related stuff home every night and bringing it back, that’s fine. I’ve heard many teachers make that argument and in the past I’ve even made it myself. But if that’s your goal, why not send home a piece of paper for parents to date, initial, and send back. You’re still teaching the bring-it-home-and-bring-it-back skill.

But Why Doesn’t Homework Help in Elementary School ?

Harris goes on to note that “younger children are less able … to ignore irrelevant information or stimulation in their environment” and “appear to have less effective study habits.” This shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s worked with young students; elementary students don’t have strong independent study skills when it comes to learning something new – that’s where good teachers come in.

Data Driven Decision Making

So why are we still doing this?

As schools focus more and more on data-driven decision-making (which is a good thing), why aren’t we looking at the data on homework?

 

Cooper, H., Robinson, C. R., Patel, E. A. “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003.” Review of Educational Research. Vol. 76, No. 1 (2006): pp. 1-62. Print.

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Will Making Kids Read Instill a Love of Reading?

origin_4351943418For years elementary teachers have been trying to sell the idea that if we assign nightly reading to students that it will make them learn to love reading. We tell our struggling readers, and their parents, if you read every night you’ll start to love reading.

Wait . . . really?

So if there’s a skill I don’t like and am not good at, practicing it will make me love it? I don’t buy it. Will practicing long division make me love long division? Will practicing doing the dishes make me love doing the dishes? Will practicing scrubbing bathrooms make me love scrubbing bathrooms? No, no, and no.

Will practicing a skill that I am not good at make me better at it? Of course it will. But we need to stop trying to sell the idea that practicing a skill will make kids love it. Given how much long division we make fourth graders do, you’d figure we’d see kids doing long division for fun in their free time – but we don’t. Because practicing a skill won’t make you love that skill.

Will practicing a difficult skill help you improve. Yes, of course. Will practicing a difficult skill make you love that skill? No, of course not. We need to stop telling people it will.

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Are You Just a Teacher or a Just Teacher?

origin_497731537Last week I read a blog post by Deborah Mills-Scofield on Switch & Shift called Are You Just a Leader or a Just Leader? Like many of the business leadership blog posts out there, it applies to teaching too. In fact, after reading it, I went back and reread it replacing “leader” with “teacher,” and “people” and “customer” with students. This left me with a great blog post, about management teaching.

Here’s some of the post, through an educator lens:

Being a leader teacher requires taking the right road, not the easy road. Treating our people students fairly requires judgment, subjectivity, and clear communication of expectations and goals on an ongoing basis since the world around us changes all the time. When we treat our people students equally but not fairly, we tell people our students it’s ok to underperform and under contribute undermining the morale of our dedicated and passionate people students and are then surprised when we get mediocre output and outcomes.

What if we modify the culture to recognize people students fairly, based on their work, effort, passion, and results – as individuals and teams? We will be surprised to see the positive difference it will make.

I versus You

…I often ask my corporate educator colleagues if focusing on ‘I’, on themselves, has really gotten them the career satisfaction they sought. As leaders teachers, we need to help our people students focus on the “You” – the customer student, the recipient of our services and products and you the employee. If we honestly ask ourselves who matters more, ‘I’, ourselves or ‘You’ our customers and people students, what is our answer?

A true leader teacher is a servant who leads. So, is the business education about our needs or the needs of ‘others’? Are we really focused on delighting our customers students (to quote my friend Steve Denning), which means we will delight our people students because they are working on meaningful, purposeful solutions to real needs (outcomes) that result revenues and profit (outputs) in learning that can be reinvested in the delighting our customers applied to their lives? Or, are we doing this for the next perk, the accolades from our peers, the prestige from our position? I’m not suggesting total altruism (though that’s not a bad idea!), but I am suggesting we ponder why we’re leading teaching and whom we’re leading teaching – is it about ‘I’ or about ‘You’? Can we really lead teach if it’s about us? Would we want to be led taught by someone who was all about himself? Does our leadership teaching truly reflect our why and who? If someone asked one of our people students who mattered to us, ‘I’ or ‘You’, what would they answer?

As we approach the middle of 2013 spring, ask yourself two questions: do you treat people students equally or fairly (or both) and does your leadership teaching, hence your classroom culture, value ‘You’ over ‘I’?

So, are you a just a teacher or a just teacher?

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“We,” “They,” and Schools

we they picIn January I read a blog post by Bill Powers about Daniel Pink‘s “Pronoun Test” from his book Drive. Basically, the Pronoun Test is about listening to employees talk about their organization and focusing on whether they refer to the organization as “we” or “they.” Mr. Powers wrote excitedly that his school was a “we” (our) school.

Over the past few months I’ve been kicking this idea of the Pronoun Test around in my head. I’ve decided that in education, the question of whether you work in a “we” or “they” organization isn’t that clear cut; it really depends on how you define “organization.” We have grade level or department teams that function like small organizations. We have schools level “organizations.” We have districts. We have Departments of Education at the state and national level. As educators, we aren’t just part of one “organization,” we’re part of many tiered organizations.

At the grade or department level we are (or at least I certainly hope are) working with a “we” organization. And with the recent NCLB and RTTT legislation I know a lot of educators see the US Department of Education as a “they.”

Somewhere between the grade level and the USDOE, the “we” becomes a “they.” Is your school a “we” or a “they”? What about your district? Your state Department of Education?

Somewhere things go from being done with you to to you.

Where does that change happen for you?

To Do List: Breathe, Play, Grow

For a long time I’ve kept lists posted on my refrigerator door: grocery lists, weekend to-do lists, don’t-forget-to-bring-things-to-school lists. Lately most of those have gone digital; my grocery list lives in Evernote now so that I am never without it. One list, however, remains on the fridge: my “things to do today” list.

The list began about ten years ago. I think the idea was to make sure I had some balance in my life, though honestly I don’t remember. The physical list has had to be rewritten a few times. It hasn’t survived every move. But more importantly, the list has become a part of who I am and how I manage my life. It’s become my day-to-day survival guide.

The list contains three items: breathe, play, grow. Sure, they’re broad and loosely defined, but they are all important. And each day the goal is check off all three items.

  • Breathe: Every day I want to take a moment to breathe, to slow down. I spend my days in a building full of children. It can be exhausting. I need a moment to breathe. And it may only be a few minutes. It’s important to have that time. Every day.
  • Play: Every day I want to do something fun. Part of life means that sometimes I have to do things I don’t want to do. And on some days it seems like I have to do a lot of those things. But it’s important to play, and have fun. Every day.
  • Grow: Every day I want to do something that makes be a stronger person. Challenge myself, learn. A good workout counts for this too. It’s too easy to coast. I don’t want to do that; I want to grow. Every day.

Of course, some activities can check off more than one item on the list. A nice easy run with friends might be both breathing and playing. Drafting a blog post during a hurricane-induced state of emergency might be both breathing and growing.

Or I might even get all three at one time. As an avid runner, an easy 20-mile run can be a chance to breathe, play, and grow. Twenty solo miles gives me time to breathe and reflect, but at the same time I get to do something I love to do, and you can bet my legs are getting stronger.

My list has three things on it: breathe, play, grow. What’s on your list? And how often is it all checked off at the end of the day?