Studying Students, Studying Snow

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Last week, the Washington Post published a curious little article by Jason Samenow, the paper’s weather editor.  The article is a post-mortem of sorts, in which the author analyzes some of the mistakes he made in forecasting a recent area snowstorm.  It caught my eye (and is relevant to this blog) for three reasons.

First of all: humility.  The author begins by saying that he’s dissatisfied at having made an inaccurate prediction, one that turned out to have “consequences for people’s daily routines,” and then he sets out to identify the root cause of his mistake.  I think I find this so delightful because it’s rare for researchers of any persuasion (hard sciences, soft sciences, social sciences, you name it) to dissect their errors, especially in a public, humble, and voluntary fashion.  So mad props to you, Mr. Samenow.  Mad props.

The second interesting thing about this article is the author’s conclusion: “What I take home from this is that we have to be a little bit more skeptical of the models and take clues from what’s happening outside our windows.”  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure what just happened was this: a white-coated, lab-dwelling, equation-lovin’ researcher told us to go outside and get a clue about the actual reality of the thing we’re studying.  Hmm… I wonder if there are any parallels to education research here.  Again, Mr. Samenow FTW!

The final reason this article stuck in my mind is a bit more substantive and, unfortunately, a bit more dire.  Meteorologist study patterns in the weather and generalize from these patterns.  They use these generalizations to make predictions which help people make decisions about their lives.  When a meteorologist’s predictions align or fail to align with how events actually play out (1) it’s obvious to everyone (e.g., did the predicted six inches of snow actually accumulate, or is there only a light dusting on the ground?) and (2) the turn-around time for observing the incorrect prediction is a matter of hours or days.

Education researchers do the same thing (study patterns, generalize, make predictions), except instead of studying the weather, they study kids.  (I suspect you can see where I’m going with this.)  When an education researcher’s predictions align or fail to align with how events actually play out (1) it’s often very hard to discern (e.g., did learning through a Writer’s Workshop model develop Ana’s ability to think metacognitively about her own writing?) and (2) the turn-around time for observing the incorrect prediction is sometimes a matter of months, more often a matter of years.

So what? you’re probably thinking… five paragraphs and you’ve all you’ve got is that kids are different from weather systems?  Yeah, that’s pretty much my point, but gimme three more sentences, okay?  The danger comes when we approach education research as if it were meteorology.  In the latter, the elements, relationships, and processes under study are conspicuous and it’s very easy to confirm or disconfirm predictions.  In the former, where we seek to understand what goes on inside kids’ minds and hearts, this is very much not the case.

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Season of Sharing

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I’ve been asking lots of people to help spread the word about The Teaching Diablogue, and I’m certainly not done asking, because we want to reach lots more people.  But, ‘tis the season of giving, so I’d like to share with you some of my favorite blogs relating to education.

  1. Mike Rose:  He’s a great writer, a great teacher, and a good friend.  His blog is full of thoughtful, complex opinions.  He currently has a series of guest posts on what to do about teacher education at The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, which is also, by the way, a reliably informative read.  
  2. Anne Ursu: Anne is the author of a half dozen books for young readers, including The Real Boy, Breadcrumbs,  and The Shadow Thieves.  And, she’s a friend of mine from college.  She posts about all sorts of thing, but recently posted an incisive critique of Arne Duncan’s recent gaffes.
  3. Gatsby in LA:  This is a beautifully written blog by a once and future high school English teacher, who was also a successful Hollywood writer.  If you care about education in LA and enjoy great writing, check it out.  Here’s my favorite post, focused on the effect that a powerful poem had on a room full of students one day.

Pulling the Ivory Tower Down to Earth

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The point of this blog is to get a conversation going directly between researchers and teachers, to bridge the gap between “white-coat, ivory-tower academic research” and “what actual, on-the-ground-practitioners need to know.”  So we asked a few teacher friends what they think we should be working on up in the tower.

What questions do teachers think researchers ought to be trying to answer?

Here are a few responses.  The responses are from a special education coordinator, a district professional development provider, a founder of a professional development company, and an elementary teacher.  Between them, they’ve got at least three score years of teaching experience, maybe four, and I think you’ll see that they’ve got plenty of thought-provoking things to say.  This is their turn (and, yes, it’s Finals Week!) so I’m going to let them at it without any extended commentary of my own, but please weigh in with your own thoughts.

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I want researchers to observe teachers that are in the trenches so they have a better understanding of the needs of teachers and students. I want researchers to stop setting unrealistic goals and expectations for schools who start with limited resources. I want researchers to think about students with disabilities on all levels(1-5) and develop systems, rubrics, and other documents that make special educators a part of the greater good that lies in the educational system.

I want questions answered about standardized testing as it relates to students with disabilities and I want to have questions answered about alignment between curriculum and tested skills. Researches have A LOT to think about but as far as problems they should attempt to solve…

  1. Solve the issue of culturally responsive teaching within urban schools
  2. Power of Our Words(not just the book) but how to address kids with student friendly language
  3. Realistic goal setting for all learners.
  4. Data driven vs. Data consumed (you can’t ask us to differentiate and then test differently)

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The ELL question is big. The bilingual is better [theory] has been up and down but the education structure in this company classifies bilingual education with religion and Santa Claus. You believe or you don’t (little bitter).

I read something recently that there will likely never be a standard way to best teach ELLs however…I think we should do something more than “the Student gets the Program people at a school believe in.”

  • Do students in schools with majority Eos do better than in schools where the majority is ELLS?
  • Is using the ELA textbook designed for English speakers an effective way to both teach a new language and literacy?
  • What is the best way to approach students in communities where there are both standard English learners and a significant ELL population?
  • What is the grade level of immigrant entry where the students begin to fail at higher rates? (kinder is probably good 6th grade not so good, but what are we seeing?

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As an organization we are concerned with the current conversations around teacher effectiveness. Many of the districts we work with are having discussions around Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching.

As it pertains to the work we do with educators, we would be interested in the research that sheds light on:

  • the types of professional development structures that are most effective
  • qualities of pd that engages and empowers teachers to shift or reform thinking and practice
  • frequency of feedback given by administrators to teachers

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-Technology integration.  How can classroom teachers best integrate technology into their classroom practice? Specifically, use of technology during instruction AND integrating technology into how students learn. Teaching the kind of technological cultural capital our children need in order to be successful in our digital age.

-Professional development. Teachers need lab experiences and long term relationships with staff developers. Longitudinal study of this type of PD vs other less effective models.

-Myth of basal reading series. Why are they still in use? None are aligned with the CCSS and more importantly, none are appropriate to use in the classroom to drive instruction.

-Process writing. It’s authentic writing. Investigate why writing workshop and process writing isn’t in every school, every classroom, TK-12.

-Words Their Way. Why is this approach not more widely used?

-Balanced literacy. A must. Why are so many school and classrooms missing so many components of balanced literacy? Lack of knowledge or oversight? How can we ensure this is happening?

-Cognitively Guided Instruction CGI. Why isn’t it in every school, every classroom? MIND Institute spatial temporal math reasoning.  Again, why not in every school, every classroom?

-Parent Collaborative Workshops.  True long term collaboration with parents. This model should be in every school.