Enough With the Elves Already (We Know They Don’t Work)

6444977071_68547bea23_oIt’s December again. That means elves on shelves are popping up in elementary classrooms (and living rooms) all over the place. The elf, children are told, keeps an eye on them and reports to Santa. The idea being that even when adults aren’t looking, someone still has their eyes on the children’s behavior.

The goal is simple, and it comes from a good place: teachers (and parents) know the holidays are approaching, children are getting excited, and adults worry (rightfully) that children will have extra difficulty regulating their behavior. So, the adults offer a reward. If you can stay in control and be good this month, even when you think no one is looking, the elf will tell the adults and you’ll be rewarded. Seems like a good idea, right?

The problem is that this kind of external motivation doesn’t help our children learn how to regulate their own behavior; it doesn’t help teach them to do the right thing. And worse, we’ve known about this … for a long time:

  • In a 1993 Harvard Business Review article entitled Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work, Alfie Kohn noted “when it comes to producing lasting change in attitudes and behavior… rewards, like punishment, are strikingly ineffective. Once the rewards run out, people revert to their old behaviors.”
  • In a 1999 meta-analysis of 128 studies, Deci, Koestner, and Ryan found that “as predicted, engagement-contingent, completion-contingent, and performance-contingent rewards significantly undermined free-choice intrinsic motivation [the ability to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing] … as did all rewards, all tangible rewards, and all expected rewards.” They also noted that, “tangible rewards had a significant negative effect on intrinsic motivation … and this effect showed up with participants ranging from preschool to college.”
  • In his 2009 book Drive, Daniel Pink discussed the seven deadly flaws of extrinsic motivation (what he calls carrots and sticks). These carrots and sticks can:
    • extinguish intrinsic motivation
    • diminish performance
    • crush creativity
    • crowd out good behavior
    • encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior
    • become addictive
    • foster short-term thinking

15750930699_10e64e62e1_oAdmittedly, Deci, Koestner, and Ryan point out that “although rewards can control people’s behavior—indeed, that is presumably why they are so widely advocated—the primary negative effect of rewards is that they tend to forestall self-regulation. In other words, reward contingencies undermine people’s taking responsibility for motivating or regulating themselves” (my emphasis). But as teachers, isn’t one of our goals to teach our students to take responsibility and regulate their own behavior (not simply have us control it) – two things that our reward systems actually undermine?

Are there a small percentage of students for whom simply getting through the holidays is the goal? Sure. But should this be the default goal for the entire classroom? Definitely not.

Teachers – we have to do more than just control behavior, we have to teach responsibility and self-regulation. We want to cultivate students who will do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because we’ll reward them. The Responsive Classroom approach teaches us that effective reinforcing teacher language is, “clear and direct, genuine and respectful, and specific“; it’s not used in a manipulative way like reward systems. Teacher language is a powerful thing; tell your students they are working hard, and how their attention to behavior benefits others. “Verbal rewards – or what is usually labeled positive feedback in the motivation literature – had a significant positive effect on intrinsic motivation” (Deci, Koestner, and Ryan, 1999); this is what we really want. Aim to build a strong and trusting community in your classroom and you won’t need elves to extort good behavior out of your students (and they don’t really work anyway).

Of course, if you’re using an elf for non-coercive strategies like practicing writing letters to your elf or calculating the distance/rate of movement he had to get from one spot to another that’s totally fine. We just need to stop the bribery thing.

photo credit 1: Have I Got a Present for You! [Explored 12/2/2011] via photopin (license)
photo credit 2: Elf on the Shelf via photopin (license)

Rewards do not create a lasting commitment. They merely, and temporarily, change what we do” Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work, Alfie Kohn. We professionals, have to do better than this (even in December).

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?

Creating a Google Custom Search Engine

Teaching students how to search effectively is essential. But letting an elementary student loose on Google makes a lot of people nervous (which is okay). School filters are good, but they aren’t perfect (which is also okay, but that’s another post altogether). A Google Custom Search Engine is a great compromise. It allows students to use the Google search engine, but it also allows you to limit the webpages and websites that are used for the results. And best of all, creating a Custom Search Engine is easy.

First, head over to www.google.com/cse.

Look for the blue botton that says, “Create custom search engine.”

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.39.58 AM

If you’re not logged into a Google account, the blue button will ask you to sign in first.

Second, you need to add the websites you want your Custom Search Engine to use. Every time you add a new site, an additional box will appear for you to add another. In my example I’ve added some sites with good information on planets.

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.43.24 AM

Next, you name the search engine.

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Finally, find the blue “Create” button.

That’s it! It’s ready to go. You just need to get your students to the search page.

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.44.34 AM

Here Google gives you three options – you can:

  1. Get code – if you want to embed your search engine in a webpage. Google will give you some javascript you can plug into a webpage.
  2. Public URL – if you want to have students navigate to your search engine. It’s a long URL so you’ll want to find a way for students to not type it all in (email it, put the link on a webpage, make a qr code, etc.)
  3. Access the Control Panel – if you want to go back and change the sites that your custom search engine uses.

When I go to the link for my Planets Custom Search Engine (the link is: https://www.google.com/cse/publicurl?cx=017140682098558138880:20oohmnfel4, I wasn’t kidding when I was long), the search page looks like this:

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.46.01 AM

And when I search for neptune atmosphere I get this (only results from the sites I specified):

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.47.36 AM

Note: If a student follows one of the search results, and then follows a link from within that page, they can access the rest of the web. The Custom Search Engine only limits the results of the search; it doesn’t block students from following links to other sites.

Searching is an important skill. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the first page of your search results, you’re using the wrong search terms. But keeping our students safe while they explore this is important too.

From XKCD

It’s Halloween – Are You Setting Your Students Up to Fail?

origin_58392393It’s Halloween. It’s a Friday. Your students are already amped up the moment they walk through the door. They cling to the structure of the daily schedule to help them make it through the day…

And then we make it a day full of costumes and special activities, throwing all that routine out the window. And somehow we expect our students to behave? We’re surprised when they can’t hold it together? We ask ourselves, “why can’t they stay in control for special activities?”

Are your special activities for your students, or for you? I’m not advocating that we never do special activities outside the normal schedule, but if kids are going to have a tough day, let’s make sure we not causing it.

See also: Your Students Secretly Hate Vacation

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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.

photo credit: Cayusa via photopin cc
photo credit: davidmulder61 via photopin cc

Why We Teach

It’s the little things.

She’s in fifth grade now. I had her in third grade. We piloted 1:1 iPads the year she was in my class.

As a fifth grader, she started her year with a Scholastic Extra, Extra, Read All About Me poster (as the fifth graders always do). Her teacher sent me this:

photo (1)

My hero is my 3rd grade teacher Mr. Schersten. He taught me to have fun but do your work at the same time. He also taught us how to sing to his guitar. He is an amazing runner and he is great with ipads. He is the best teacher ever.

To have fun and do your work at the same time. Yea, let’s do that.

It’s the little things.

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.

photo credit: Ðenise via photopin cc