Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Project Manifesto

OK, as a parent of two school-age children and as a teacher myself, I'm drawing a line in the sand: these projects are crazy.  So two questions:  first, what's the point of assigning student projects?  And what are some "best practices" in incorporating those?

A great project gives the student the opportunity to...

  1. Use (and improve) skills acquired in class. 
  2. Explore and learn about a subject in depth.
  3. Display his or her knowledge and thinking in ways that go beyond short essays and paper-and-pencil classwork (tests, quizzes, etc.)--in particular, to illuminate connections and relationships he or she has made/noticed himself/herself.
  4. Exert some freedom of choice in subject matter and presentation.
  5. Perhaps most important:  produce a complex artifact independently.
What drives me crazy is the project that takes place entirely out-of-class, with no clear connection to skills acquired in class, and without enough structure that a student working independently can produce anything independently.  A few examples:
  • An "author's chapbook" of original poetry, in a class in which no poetry has been produced, or even read.
  • A research project on local history, in a class in which students have spent literally no time doing actual history research.
  • A first-grade "design your own city" project, with four single-spaced pages of instructions (but no rubric).
No, none of those were made up.  And so the student work produced is either pretty mediocre or nonexistent:  the project is almost completely structured by the parents.  Woe betide the child whose parents don't know how to do history research themselves, and who can't get their child into a decent library with dedicated reference librarians who can help the child to do the research.

I'm not saying that all parental involvement in projects is bad, but we need to be careful, for two reasons.  First, parental involvement is a highly regressive "tax":  kids whose parents don't have the personal, intellectual, or financial capital to give "help" are penalized in grades (and a general feeling of inadequacy).  Second, parental involvement deprives the child of the most important long-term benefits of projects, namely, the experience of organizing and creating an original and important-to-them object that cannot be done in a single sitting.  It's worth noting that parental involvement quickly turns into an arms race:  it's hard for any parent to look at wall full of slick, parentally-lettered posters, and see his son's scrawled poster as the marvel of independent effort that it is.  And when a parent is faced with a child working on a project for which he or she has NOT been given the required skills and context in class, what's that parent to do?  Just say "figure it out as best you can?"

So what "best practices" do these suggest?  I have a few modest proposals
  1. The project should not require any skills or background knowledge not taught as part of the ordinary curriculum in that school in that year or prior years.

    Obviously, the experience of doing a research project is going to improve kids' abilities to find information, write expository paragraphs, and cite sources--IF they have a basic grounding in those skills in the first place.  Otherwise, it's more like handing a kid a bicycle who doesn't know how to ride at all, and saying "meet me at the campsite 10 miles up the road."  A few kids will make it to camp before dark.  The others will call their parents with the minivan.

    Specific examples of skills that need to be taught in these projects
    - Fiction and poetry writing -- unless you really think that every creative piece is as good as every other.
    - Discipline-specific research skills, including data analysis for science projects.
    - Experimental design for science projects.
  2. The instructions for the project should be at a reading level appropriate to (at least) the top 2/3 of the class.

    If the kids can't read the instructions themselves, how are they going to get any work done independently?  This one is a no-brainer.
  3. The project should be broken into checkpoints.  Work required between checkpoints should be no more than 2-3 ordinarily nightly homework assignments' worth per checkpoint, at least until upper high school.

    Kids, even little kids, can structure their own time, but they need help and teaching.  I think a reasonable balance between self-structuring and total supervision is two or three nights' worth of homework.  For example, if a typical nightly homework assignment might be to write a single paragraph, a one-week checkpoint on a project might be to write three paragraphs.  That way, the kids have to think about when and how they will get the work done--self-structuring--but will not be slammed with an insane amount of work if they screw up the structuring.  We all want our kids to learn from their mistakes, but reducing the penalty to something manageable means we can all let the kids live through the consequences.  If a kid is given five weeks to do a massive paper with no checkpoints, and puts it off to the end, it's going to be hard to stand back and watch the kid fail the entire project (or stay up until 2am getting it done).  So then the parent winds up doing the work, which teaches the kid ... to procrastinate?
  4. Kids should get meaningful feedback at each checkpoint, and the opportunity to revise that work for later.

    Again, a no-brainer.  When my child got dinged at Science Fair for incorrectly stating the hypothesis (didn't use "If ... then ... " form), what bothered me was not the requirement, but the fact that the VERY SAME hypothesis had been submitted months earlier -- and approved.

    Writing teachers say that the best way to learn to write is to revise.  So why have students hand in a final draft without incorporating the experience of revision?
  5. Project assignment sheets should state explicitly the amount of time estimated to complete the project well, and the amount and kind of parental involvement expected.

    Every Federal form has a statement at the bottom that says how much time the issuing agency expects it will take to fill out the form.  Projects should be the same way.  At least, this process would force teachers to ask themselves "how much am I really asking of my students?"  And by giving parents explicit guidelines about what and how much they should be doing, you can help parents who WANT to do the right thing, and maybe give a reality check to overzealous parents about what the child should be able to do independently.
What do I do as a parent?  As little as possible: the most important part for me is that my child have the experience of accomplishing something complex and challenging independently.  Specifically:
  • With my younger child, in first and second grade, we would sit down with the project description and break the project into stages (checkpoints), making a checklist my child could use without my help.
  • With my younger child, I would type work as requested, but I didn't edit.  (Now both children type their own work.)
  • With my older child, I've had to step in to teach research strategies and skills (like: write the bibliography info of the source at the top of each page of notes, so you know what came from where).
  • For science fair projects, I've helped design experiments about issues the children have come up with, and in one case, I taught some background mathematics. 
  • But my older child is fiercely independent about schoolwork--just the way I like it--so I'm usually not involved at all.
Tell me: what did I overlook?  What's your favorite project horror story?  Tell me in the comments. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Last week's Gates Report

So the Gates Foundation released a report last week about measuring teacher quality.  Their analysis took several unusual steps:

  1. First, they took three sources of data--observational evaluations, value-added metrics applied to prior years, and student evaluations of teachers--and considered which combination of them was more predictive of teacher success.
  2. Second, they measured teacher success using a value-added metric applied to randomized classes.  That is, teachers were compared based on their success (or failure) with students who had been randomly assigned to their classes;  by contrast, many elementary schools exert some effort in putting kids with the "right" teachers.  The Gates study attempted to minimize selection bias in this way.
  3. Third, they considered other criteria for an evaluation systems's success besides its predictive power on state tests:  year-to-year stability and student performance on tasks that they euphamistically described as "higher-order" (i.e. involved actual thought, not just rote facts and skill application).
The findings were pretty striking:
  • The VAM was predictive of student's future success in testing; in fact, of the four weighting systems they studied, the one that was most predictive of student's test scores was the one that weighted VAM most highly:

  • The equal weights scheme produced a reasonably high correlation with state tests gains without sacrificing as much on the higher order tests or on reliability.
So what should we make of this?  Is this a vindication of VAM?  I'm not so sure, for a couple of reasons:

  1. Whether a test is designed to measure growth or not is an important issue that isn't addressed by simplistic "Look at whether test scores increase or not."  Increasing from a 400 SAT to a 500 SAT is different from increasing from a 500 to a 600, a 600 to a 700, or a 700 to an 800.  So simply pointing to these data and saying "Look, VAMs work!" doesn't address the underlying issue of the test itself:  the reason these VAMs might work is that the underlying tests are better.
  2. There's an odd kind of solipsism to this report, as my friend Sendhil pointed out.  I mean, we're talking about predicting students' gains on tests by using prior students' gains on the same tests. So it shouldn't surprise us that the predictions went pretty well. (Although a graph like this one -- showing VAM scores for the same teachers, same classes -- shows that it's not exactly a slam dunk:

  3. As a classroom teacher, I can attest that there's no such thing as a double-blind study:  the students know whom they're getting, even if they're randomly assigned.  As a longtime teacher in my school with a good reputation, I can ask things of my students that other teachers simply can't ask:  harder projects, more retakes, etc., because students trust me in a way that they might not trust another teacher.  So it's still possible that students who know--as the VAM people keep telling us, "everyone knows" who the good teachers are--that their teachers are among the good ones therefore do harder work, challenge themselves more, and make more gains, not because of better teaching technique, but because of what they themselves are doing.
  4. Look at those terrible correlations with HOTS (higher-order thinking skills)!  Shouldn't we be trying to figure out what will make students do better on those?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Psychiatrists:Lighbulbs :: PD-givers:???

One of my favorite jokes goes like this:
Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A:  Only one, but it has to really want to be changed.
I think about this joke a lot in my current role as curriculum coordinator, and also as a parent of three school-going children.  I think about when I observe a teacher at my school doing something that's -- well, let's say commonly-accepted but low-impact.  And when my kids come home from school with some story about pedagogy that just makes me wince--for example, starting class by going over homework answers, which (for those of you who don't know) pretty much stops any job interview with me in its tracks.  I think to myself: I could tell this teacher what s/he's doing is bad and why it's bad.  And yet, I don't think that initiating that conversation would change anything.  The teacher has to really want to change.

So what gets a teacher to want to change?  Because I'm in pessimistic mode, this is a shortlist of things I've found that don't work as well as they should.

  1. Unsuccessful students.  We have an amazing capacity to rationalize failure of individuals or groups.  How often have I said "----'s a weak student" rather than asking "How can I address ---'s weaknesses?  More often than I'd care to admit.
  2. Successful students.  When we look at a school (class, teacher) who is producing consistently excellent results, do we ask "what is their practice?"  Or do we say "their kids/budget/materials/prep time/----" is different?
  3. Data from actual lessons.  "Did you realize you spent 20 minutes going over homework problems?" "Yeah, it's a pain, but they really need to go over the answers they don't know."
  4. Professional development.  PD is the least effective instigator of change: it supports change initiatives that teachers already buy into.
Having said that, I think that 1, 2, and 3 can actually work -- with repetition, reflection, and most of all, a climate in which it's okay to admit failure.  The best part of the math office at Payton--when I was a regular teacher, and I think still today--was that you could walk in and say, to your colleagues, about your own class "Wow, that lesson just stank!"  More good conversations started that way than in official meetings; that moment--the moment you realize you need to do something different, or differently--is so valuable and fleeting, it needs to be honored.  In hospitals, they have regular, formal meetings for doctors to share their failures:  morbidity and mortality meetings, where doctors discuss how patients died, and think together about how to avoid those failures in the future.  Why not in schools?

In my current job, I try to emphasize that I'm here to help; some teachers are open about those conversations, but of course not all.  But I wonder: as we increase the stakes and the pressure, do we enable those all-important conversations--or shut them down?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I just saw Jiro Dreams of Sushian award-winning documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi chef in Japan and proprietor of the first sushi restaurant (a ten-seat establishment inside a subway station) to be awarded a Michelin 3 Star rating.  It's also a film-length meditation on teaching, learning, and excellence, which is why I'm blogging about it.  It has many messages and discussions about art, craft, and teaching, but I'm going to pull out three.

  1. The essence of excellence is doing simple things consistently well.  At the start of the movie, you might think: sushi?  How complicated can raw fish on rice be?  What we learn is that it's not complicated, it's just hard to get exactly right every single time.  One critic mentions that, in all his years of attending Jiro's restaurant, he has never had a meal that wasn't fantastic.  Jiro himself has been fanatical in stripping down his work to the essentials:  he stopped serving appetizers, and now only serves sushi.  And what makes his sushi so good?  He gets the very best fish, and doesn't settle for less than the best preparation.  At one point, we meet Jiro's rice supplier, and hear the following (paraphrased) exchange:

    Supplier:  Hyatt hotel wanted me to sell them the same rice I sell you, but I said no--because I didn't want to betray our relationship, but also because they don't know how to cook it.

    Jiro:  Go ahead and sell it to them.  They don't know how to cook it, so it won't be any good.

    Supplier:  That's right.  It won't be any good unless they know how to cook it.  You're the only one who knows how to cook it.

    At this point, you're probably wondering--I was--how complicated can cooking rice be?  But Jiro has developed a special method for cooking this rice--they show it to us--that brings out its special qualities.  By the end of the segment, you're convinced:  how you cook this rice is really important.

    How does this relate to teaching?  As with any other "simple" art, there's no way to hide imperfection. With sushi, it's just fish and rice, so if the rice isn't good, the sushi isn't good.  When you watch a great teacher, what's great isn't just the overall lesson design or the major tasks--it's the details of how he or she handles the lesson's flow, how papers get returned (hint: not during the lesson itself!), what happens when students make errors or ask unexpected questions...the myriad tiny details that actually shape the experience of being in the classroom for the lesson.  And so great teachers think about these things:  a book like Every Minute Counts or Teach Like a Champion is really a compendium of dozens or hundreds of techniques to make those details perfect.
  2. Mastery is a process, not a destination.  Jiro is described several times as a shokunin, a Japanese term for "master craftsman."  But he doesn't see his own status as "the master," even though everyone -- the people who supply his fish, his apprentices, restaurateurs -- treats him with reverence.  Jiro himself is constantly innovating, asking himself how to do things better.  One example is his decision, in his mid-70's, to stop serving appetizers--to really focus his (and his customers') attention on the sushi. Another his adjustments to his processes for preparing octopus (he increased the massaging and marinating time).  At one point, Jiro compares his own palate to legendary French chef Daniel Boulud's, saying that if he (Jiro) had a more discriminating palate, he would be able to make sushi even better.  This attitude runs deep in Japanese culture: the shokunin never regards his own status as "mastery" but rather as "continuing to grow."

    There are many ways to relate this to teaching, but the most important is maybe the least obvious:  the really great teachers I've known are also the most self-critical of their own lessons.  These teachers leave the room, most days, feeling not like they just made a slam dunk, but wondering about different things that happened, could have happened, or didn't happen.  When a teacher tells me that he felt the lesson went "really well," that tells me that--usually--the teacher is still a long way from mastery.

    There are two reasons for this self-criticism.  First, the way you become a master at anything is by being very self-reflective and critical of your own work.  But there's more:  as you get better at teaching, you get better at noticing the tiny details (see #1) that make a lesson work or not work.  It's impossible to get all those details perfect every single time; the master teacher is always dissatisfied because he or she sees so much that could have gone better.  (This phenomenon is similar to the experience of doing well on a law school examination, where the key is to identify the legal issues presented in a situation:  the best students get only about 70-80% of the issues, but are also the most aware of the 20-30% they missed, while students who understand the material less well think that the 50-60% they spotted are all the issues there are.)
  3. Teaching people to be masters requires holding them to high standards, every time.  At Jiro's restaurant, the apprenticeship is ten years.  Only in the last year do students get to make the tamagoyaki, a kind of sweet egg omelet eaten at the end of the meal.  One apprentice describes making the omelet two hundred times before Jiro pronounced it acceptable.  But he's not fired, reprimanded--that we can tell-or punished in any way:  he's simply told, each time, that it's not right yet (and, presumably, how it's wrong or how to fix it).

    In our education system, we claim to hold students to high standards, but we often make it impossible to really do that.  Think of the traditional unit structure:  homework (often ungraded), a couple of quizzes, and then a unit test a day or two after the conclusion of new material.  A kid only has two or three opportunities to figure out how to do the tasks before he's held to account for them.  As a result, we make the tasks easier, or give partial credit--because doing something challenging exactly right requires way, way, way more attempts and feedback than this structure provides.

    Standards-based grading provides an opportunity to change that structure, but as teachers at Payton are figuring out, it can mean a lot more work:  students try again and again to meet those high standards, and as a teacher you have to create sample tasks, and give feedback, for each of those attempts.  But we've found that standards-based grading allows us to hold students to very high standards, to be very clear about what we expect students to know and be able to do--and to be really sure that they can do the things we want.  In short, standards-based grading helps us ensure that students are really learning to do tasks consistently well.

    Does this system work?  Return to Jiro's restaurant.  At the end of the movie, we find out an important fact:  over all of the Michelin reviewers' visits to Jiro, he was never actually the sushi chef on duty.  His (middle-aged) son and his apprentices, not Jiro himself, were the ones who prepared the sushi that, Michelin said, deserved no less than a three-star rating.  
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a great movie.  I saw it on Amazon streaming (free to Prime members), but you can also get it on Netflix, etc.  What I've put in here is just a small taste of what I got from the movie; I hope that you, like me, leave wanting more.