Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Task Rotation PLC

Contary to the first idea that springs to my mind when I hear the phrase task rotation, the text I will discuss today has nothing to do with centers. Task Rotation: Strategies for Differentiating Activities and Assessments by Learning Style by Harvey F. Silver, Joyce W. Jackson, and Daniel R. Moirao is another Strategic Teacher PLC Guide that details an instructional strategy utilizing different learning styles to differentiate instruction. (ASCD has sponsored a webinar on one of Mr. Silver's PLC Guides, Reading for Meaning, available at
http://www.ascd.org/professional-development/webinars/harvey-silver-webinar.aspx )

This strategy utilizes learning styles, not Gardner's 8 learning styles, but Meyers-Briggs learning/thinking styles: mastery, understanding, self-expressive and interpersonal. Mastery thinking involves remembering and describing. Understanding thinking involves reasoning and explanation. Self-expression involves imagination and creativity. Interpersonal thinking involves exploring feelings and relating personally to material.

As a graphic, the authors use a quartered rectangle, one section for each style. Then each style is addressed with a question or activity in each quadrant. Students can be asked to complete one activity of their choice, a combination of 2 or more, or all in a certain or random order. These questions must be addressed prior to implementing the strategy.

The opening activity asks participants which of a series of images they think most represents themselves. This activity is used to help people understand their own preferences and can be used with students as well. Just because someone has certain preferences, however, does not mean that all their work should represent that style or that he will not learn if material is not presented in that style. It is incumbent to learning to use a variety of styles to enhance engagement. Additionally, everyone must be able to think in each way.

As the guide instructs, I developed my own example:
  • Mastery: Identify the differences between parasitism, symbiosis, predation, and mutalism. 
  • Understanding: Explain how parasitism could lead to extinction, but symbiosis would not.
  • Interpersonal: How would you explain your relationship with your parents:  parasitism, symbiosis, predation, or mutalism? Explain your reasoning.
  • Self-expression: Create and explain a metaphor comparing predation to something else.
With the above tasks, I would ask the students to do two of the four items to demonstrate their understanding of the material. Alternatively, you could ask students to complete one as a ticket out the door activity. I found this skill challenging. It seemed for every area that I tried to think about, one of the styles was super easy, one or two were not too difficult, and the fourth was very challenging to create. Oddly, the difficult one varied from topic to topic rather than remaining solidly a particular manner of thinking that was consistently elusive. With practice, I know that I will improve. That will be the key- practice.

This particular strategy could be useful for differentiating across thinking skills, but differentiation also needs to address varying skill levels. While scaffolding could be done with this strategy, it would be challenging to use it to address the needs of high ability students without merely assigning them more work.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Inference PLC guide

Inference: Teaching Students to Develop Hypotheses, Evaluate Evidence, and Draw Logical Conclusions by Harvey F. Silver, R. Thomas Dewing and Matthew J. Perini is the fourth book in the Strategic Teacher PLC Guide series that I have read. It is designed to be used as part of a collaborative professional learning community (PLC) to guide a team toward learning and utilizing an instructional strategy. It follows the same structure as the others: opening section explains the rationale and strategy; section 2 has the group evaluate examples of the strategy and plan a lesson on their own, between 2 and 3 the teacher is expected to teach the lesson, hopefully with an observer and observe another teaching a lesson with the strategy; section 3 is a debrief, then the teacher goes off and designs another lesson with the strategy, bringing student work back to section 4 for further evaluation.

As a departure from the standard one shot staff development, the approach is valuable. By utilizing collaborative groups, modeling, metacognitive questions and opening and summarizing statements, the authors practice what they preach in terms of sound instructional strategies. If a group were to engage in the activity, they would benefit from the experience. While I reflected and responded to the thought questions, simply reading through the book is not adequate to truly add this to your repertoire. Engaging in the application step is essential. There are very comprehensive planning and evaluative worksheets included. Although a teacher would not spend the time completing the forms every time, doing it at the beginning to practice is important. Keeping the community together for only 4 or 5 sessions, seems both viable and valuable. People could commit to one day a week for a month and the narrow time frame would enable people to maintain their focus and not lose interest.

The book differs from the others in that rather than focusing on a single strategy as Reading for Meaning and Compare and Contrast do, it identifies four closely related strategies: inductive learning, mystery, main idea and investigation. While this broadens the scope of application, it does mean that each one receives less attention and section 2 is a long part (56 out of the 113 pages are here). Practically that means that a PLC would need to either acknowledge the length and plan to meet for longer than the other days or break it into two sections.

The idea of providing students with small chunks of information and asking them to draw conclusions is the essence of the group of strategies. Inference strategies can be utilized across the curriculum. Although examples focus at the middle and secondary levels, it could be easily adapted to early grades. If teachers were to consciously teach inference at the early primary levels, it would not be such a big deal at the upper levels.

As the Common Core rolls out and we are asking students to use more higher level thinking, inferences will become more important. Using the strategy family this book provides will help students become successful. Using the approach to staff development will facilitate successful learning of the teacher's part as well.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Total Participation Techniques

I once gave a workshop on checking for understanding where I asked, "What is the least effective way to check for understanding?" All the participants were able to answer with some version of, "Do you have any questions?" We have all asked this question even though we know it is ineffective and misleading. From there I proceeded to detail a couple of ways to check for understanding in a classroom, letting my participants practice as I went. Do they do it? Well, there was no administrative mandate to actually make any change to the way my staff operated, I was the only one on staff to have a variety of strategies and teacher were very stuck in their ways. You know the answer. I get to keep trying and promoting ideas.

Total Participation Techniques by Persida Himmele and William Himmele details all sorts of those methods for checking for understanding and maintaining engagement. In their easy to read book, they present the ideas with instructions for implementation. They highlight many examples of total participation techniques (TPT) from elementary, middle and college levels. Interestingly, there are no examples from high school, so I will not recommend this text to the teachers I work with. I will have to pull the examples out and present them independently.

One of the things that they suggest for all levels are tool kits of materials, including glue sticks, scissors, and markers.  Yes, high school kids like to do "crafty" things. In my room we often cut and paste as a matter of expediency. I would rather they spend time writing a response than rewriting a quote. I use lots of color. Kelly Gallagher, a high school English teacher and promoter of the Article of the Week idea, has his students use high lighters all the time. If tool kits are available, it is not an issue of do I have the supplies. It is a matter of can I think of a way to meaningfully increase engagement. One history teacher I have worked with is all about art projects. Often however they do not involve higher level thinking or even mass engagement since one member of a group can and often will do it all.

Hold ups of many varieties have been used for a long time. Holding up a card that has a True or False is easy. Cards with either pictures, words or initial letters could be used across all subject areas. In Social studies you could use executive, legislative or judicial branch; North or South; or Egyptian, Babylonian, or Sumerian Empires. In math you could use law of detachment, law of syllogism, De Morgan's law or the law of contrapositive as what goes next or formulas that could be used to solve a problem. In art you could have Monet or Degas examples. Science could have numbers 1-5 to use in balancing chemical equations or intrusive or extrusive rocks. English could use cards with figures of speech to identify elements in a poem or character names to illustrate who is being described. The possibilities are endless.

The other important aspect that the authors address is accountability. Students will bow out if given the chance. The teacher must wait until all students have weighed in. The teacher must circulate and provide reinforcement and encouragement as needed. Wrong answers must be treated as an important part of the journey of learning. Explaining the reasoning behind answers allows for access to a window of student thinking. Errors in logic or information can be addressed while learning and  creativity can be celebrated.

Research tells us that frequent checking for understanding significantly improves learning. We need to step up to the plate, utilize TPT's that increase our ability to check for understanding and implement programs of action for students who struggle. Without using some sort of check, our students will continue to fall through the cracks, fail to learn and not benefit from the education we are there to provide.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Acceleration: Parenting for High Potential

As many of 20% of all drop outs may be gifted or high ability students (Renzulli & Park 2000). This is a national tragedy. One of the major reasons these students drop out is because of boredom and lack of peer engagement, especially in middle school. June’s Parenting for High Potential tackles the concept of acceleration as a way to meet these children’s needs.

This topic is near and dear to my heart since my daughter is within this group of high ability students. The year before she entered kindergarten, our district moved from a half day to a full day kindergarten program. Although I knew there was a snowball’s chance she would be let into school early, I attended the informational meeting. When I shared my concern that her needs would not be met, I was told that our wonderful kindergarten staff would find ways to teach her. I was told she could teach the children who were not getting it. While my child is bright and I am trained as a teacher, she has not. It is not her job to teach her classmates; it is her job to learn. A year later she wowed the screening teacher who was later dismissive of my questions about meeting her needs and entered public school.

Alas, she was not learning much. She enjoyed coloring and her fine motor skills improved. Her teacher’s attempt to help was to send home extra work that would take her to the next level. It is not that I do not have the materials or ability to teach her, but I did not want her to have nothing to do in school. She was only 5. A full day of school, even if it did not involve much learning was tiring. After school she did not want to do more work. Her primary teachers each eventually acknowledged her skills and the lack of a need for her to receive the “instruction” that was going on in class, but did little about it. In third grade I finally got her in touch with the district’s enrichment specialist. A couple of months prior to the end of fourth grade I asked her if she wanted to do the fifth grade math curriculum over the summer and start sixth grade math in the fall. If she wasn’t in, the sleeping dog would lie. She said yes. You would have thought I asked for gold plated shoes. They tested her- that was a mistake on their part because instead of proving how average she was (their thought), she revealed how exceptional she was. Finally I got acceleration for her.

Unfortunately her story is not unusual. Schools do not want to accelerate, especially now that they are being graded on how well the students do. Everyone wants the gifted child on their caseload, but no one really wants to do anything different for the child. The low end students get the attention- there is money and staff there to help. The high end children test out above the test at the beginning of the year. You cannot show any progress there. My fear is that with the adoption of CCSS schools will become even less likely to accelerate. Parents will hear about how the curriculum will now challenge him and give her a chance. Every year we give them a chance, is a year that is lost to instruction. Learning curves being what they are, gifted children should widen the gap between themselves and their peers, not shrink it. A child who can learn 2 years of material for every one an average child learns should skyrocket above the rest in short order. Research has shown that some very gifted children can learn a year of material in as little as three weeks. These kids are bored and we are not meeting their potential.

The most often cited concern against acceleration is social-emotional. For some reason, we feel that kids should form friendships based on age not interest. How long does a football obsessed adult male want to talk about crocheting with his friend’s wife? Gifted children often do not form friends with their “peers” because their “peers” do not have similar interests. It is up to the educators to help develop immature social skills if they exist. Not hold them back because they might be teased. Let me tell you, being the class brain, nerd or geek is not easy. Teasing happens. We cannot let our fears prevent these children from being challenged. It is unfair to them.

Furthermore Rogers (1999) identified two reasons to support acceleration:

·    “Gifted children are significantly more likely to retain science and mathematics content accurately when taught 2-3 times faster than the “normal” class pace.
·    Gifted students are significantly more likely to forget or mislearn science and mathematics content when they must drill and review it more than 2-3 times.” (cited by Scheibel, 2012)

We need to differentiate up as well as down, but just as differentiation does not meet the needs of all learners and we have reading support and special education, we need to have options at the high end.  Acceleration is an easy and inexpensive way of meeting the needs of our bright children and keeping them learning.


Renzulli, J., & Park, S. (2000). Gifted drop outs: the who and the why. Gifted Child Quarterly, 44(4), 261-71.

Scheibel, S. (2012). Academic acceleration: is it right for my child? Parent for high potential, 1(7).

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom

How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom by Susan M. Broookhart describes methods for evaluating thinking skills. After defining what she means by higher order thinking skills (see the prior post), she delves into evaluating skills both formatively and summatively. Because of the information density, the text is not an easy read. It is loaded with examples at all grade levels and across the entire curriculum. Many of the examples are pulled from national tests, especially NEAP. She also dropped in teacher developed examples to round out the offerings. Rubrics and criteria accompany each example to demonstrate how a teacher can assess student work.

Many points stuck out as important reminders about higher order thinking. First, in order to be a higher order activity, it must involve some novelty. New material to think about, a request to do something in a novel way, integrating two or more things that were discussed are all examples. Paraphrasing a wikispaces entry about a deeper issue is not higher order thinking. Doing the hard work of thinking is required. Students must for example "do the analysis themselves" (p. 47). One very interesting point that the author makes is that multiple choice questions can assess higher order thinking. To use such questions formatively, students need to explain why they chose the answer selected.

Thinking level gets more complex as students need to incorporate more pieces of information and more complicated relationships among them (p. 42). Developing relationships between what is known in memory and new information is higher order thinking. Students need to develop strategies to complete these tasks, practice the strategies and internalize them so that they can independently and automatically select appropriate tools to help them. Teachers can assess the appropriateness of the selected strategy through formative assessments prior to the end point of a project. To take advantage of formative assessment, the teacher needs to provide feedback and instruction throughout the learning task. Focusing feedback on formative exercises allows learning and skill development.

Rubrics abound throughout the text. They "describe qualities rather than count things" (p.36). It is not enough to simply list three ways things are similar, students must clearly and fully explain their reasoning. Another key aspect about assessing student work is that we need to assess thinking skills, not the product neatness, colorfulness or standards of written English. If we want to use a single task to assess both writing skills and thinking skills, there should be two grades. One pitfall that many teachers fall into is the assessment of creativity. Without defining creativity, students do not know what we mean. Brookhart's definition of creativity is "putting things together in new ways..., observing things others might miss, constructing something novel, using unusual or unconventional imagery that nevertheless works to make an interesting point, and the like" (p. 124). Creativity is not colorfulness, using beautiful pictures from a high end color printer, exact and straight lines, and neatness. If that is what a teacher wants to assess on a project, identify it as such. Do not, however, fall into the trap of making prettiness a significant piece of the grade. Content and thinking should be what the grade is about.

The generic rubric on pages 80-1 demonstrates how to assess content, reasoning and evidence and clarity of written expression to evaluate a written project. The author emphasises how important it is to identify criteria for feedback prior to assigning a task. If a teacher waits until papers are submitted to decide what to look for, students are blindsided and teachers must scramble in the assessment process. If teachers are trying to assess too many things at once, none of them will be assessed well and students will gain little from the feedback.

One example that I particularly liked was her adaption of a standard country report.  To increase the level of thinking required, she recommends posing an analytical question for students to answer rather than merely listing facts such as population, climate,  major resources and industries, and so on. Her example is "How do the major industries in the country reflect opportunities afforded by the climate or geopolitical location of the country?" (p 139) I might offer additional choices such as:
  • What issues of scarcity does the country have to deal with? How does it accomplish this and how successful is the work? Suggest improvements.
  • How might the country be different if a famous figure had not existed?
  • Identify an endangered animal or plant from your country. Describe how the country is managing the population and assess how successful they are. Identify further steps that might be taken, what are the pros and cons of the steps and why you would suggest one over the others.

The criteria for feedback would include: clear, appropriate thesis answering the key question; appropriate evidence to support the thesis; and soundness of reasoning and clarity of explanation. Such criteria is consistent with the Common Core State Standards of informational literacy, text-based answers and writing from sources.

The book ends with a fantastic chart detailing what to assess, what material might be provided and questions to ask students. If a person were to have a single piece of the book, this chart would be it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How to assess higher-order thinking skill in your classroom: What is higher order thinking?

Several years ago I read a blog whose name I cannot remember. To paraphrase it, a group of educators entered a discussion on the meaning of critical thinking and ended up agreeing to disagree on the meaning. He also stated that he found significant value in the discussion itself.

I have spoken with some colleagues and have found a similar diversity of answers. One strongly asserts that there is "A definition," and any discussion beyond that is pointless. Another believes any question that he presents that involves any question word from Bloom's taxonomy wheel's application, evaluation, analysis or synthesis areas  (http://clihome.com/Docs/CM/BloomsWheel.pdf ) must represent critical thinking, regardless of how many times it has been discussed. I believe that both of these people would benefit from a discussion on the meaning of critical thinking. In fact, in twenty years of teaching in a dozen different buildings, I have not encountered a staff that would not benefit from such a debate. Personally, I do not believe that there is a correct definition, but I do agree that any school that is trying to develop critical thinking, must in some way define what is being worked toward.

How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom by Susan M. Brookhart tackles this debate by defining three aspects of higher-order thinking: the ability to transfer knowledge to novel situations, critical thinking (reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do), and problem solving. Admittedly her divisions are not cut in stone; overlap exists. Her identification of what she is looking for is essential to the remainder of the text just as is it to a school district trying to develop higher order thinking.

To me, higher order thinking is any question that involves doing things with knowledge. If it merely is a repetition or restatement, you may be working with important information. After all, if we did not learn to automaticity the alphabet, no one would be reading this page. However, it is the manipulation of information that is the hallmark of higher order thinking.  Integrating information from multiple sources to create a new whole, using information in a new way, tearing something apart to evaluate either its components or its whole are all examples of higher order thinking.