Sunday, September 13, 2015

Assignments Matter

Eleanor Doughterty wrote Assignments Matter: Making the Connections that Help Students Meet Standards for ASCD in 2012. Her overriding theme is that there is a difference between assignments, activities and assessments. The purpose of assignments is to create an environment for learning whereas an activity is "merely doing" (p. 23). It seems like her assignments are tasks that students need to participate in learning and thinking in order to complete. It appears she views activities as fairly useless and she does not discuss assessments.

In order to present robust and rigorous assignments that promote learning, she sees teacher collaboration as essential. She sees time as the number one impediment to completing assignments that present rigorous tasks that work toward teaching the CCSS. Time is required to deeply understand the standards and develop assignments that involve real world basis. In some ways her ideas appear to be more about essential questions than anything else. One example she provides is
What is the proper role of the individual in response to a disaster? After reading passages from the Dalai Lama, John Donne, Marcus Aurelius and William Stafford on individual responsibility, write a letter to a younger student that addresses the question and supports your position with evidence from the texts. (p. 23)

When you look at this assignment, it is the result of  a series of tasks the teacher will guide the students through in order to complete the culminating activity: scaffold reading comprehension tasks through each passage, discussion about responsibility, perhaps interviews or video viewing of people after a disaster, instruction in letter writing and composition might all be required. Yes, this assignment requires lots of instruction and could be robust, but it is very time consuming.

People refer to the Common Core standards as being substantially reduced in content, but assignments like this require perhaps a month of instruction. Content might still need to be reduced in order to accomplish this goal. At the end of the book she highlights a middle school program that instituted a program called Rapid Transit (p. 149-150). The students were significantly behind expectations and experienced high rates of failure in high school before the implementation of the program. Rapid Transit highlighted literacy and math skills and sidelined all but the major concepts in other subjects. The students were able to make remarkable progress in ELA and math, but at what cost? Students were denied access to content that build background to high school and life. They likely missed out on many activities that were exciting for students- rich science experiments, interesting stories about the history of our country and geography, perhaps even the arts, music and PE. It is an interesting trade off.

The other thing that seems to missing from Ms. Dougherty's program of focus on assignments is a focus on fluency. While ELA goals of reading deeply and communicating effectively  are permeating the curriculum across the board, there is also a focus on fluency with certain skills. I am concerned that her poo pooing of "activities" reduces opportunity for fluency. The book is significantly ELA focused but seems to ignore the idea that many of our students have reading fluency issues. These students need us to engage in activities that focus on reading fluency- rereading with a focus on prosody, listening while reading, and reading with a thought to speed and accuracy. She would probably defend her position saying that teachers could embed the instruction within other "bigger" tasks, and perhaps she is correct. Without mentioning fluency based skills, however, I fear that this text will encourage ignoring them.

One admirable key feature is her idea that anchor assignments are important. I live in New York. We have a long tradition of assessing students and releasing the assessments (our Regents testing program started in 1860). These tests have tasks that are anchors. They standardize expectations across the state. Teachers use old questions and activities to prepare students for the rigors of the exam. Done well, the summative test was the easiest test students experienced in their year. Anchor assignments provide for a set of expectations. They showcase what students should be able to do, what their writing should look like. This is exactly what our testing program has provided.

This book is strikingly lacking in examples of her ideas. She suggests locations to look for assignments, how to build and effective rubric and some possible solutions for dealing with logistic concerns, but these are usually lacking in detail that would assist one with implementing her ideas. In some ways it almost seems as if her goal in writing the book is to engage her or another consultant.

While I agree that rigorous tasks are important, teacher collaboration is essential to effective instruction of students and working to improve skill sets of teachers and students is important, we need to be cognizant of creating rich experiences in language that do not demoralize our students with disabilities. A dyslexic student faced with reading and writing tasks in every class needs tremendous support. Managing this is an agonizing process as electives are eliminated and graduation is postponed. We need to be careful to meet the needs of all our students. Not all students are going to college. Students need soft skills like resilience, time management, organization and initiative in order to be successful. We need to embed these skills throughout our curriculum and recognize their accomplishment. For students who struggle with executive function skills, we need to spend as much time detailing them as how to teach how to factor quadratic equations and finding the volume of complex polyhedrons. We need to develop underlying fluency to facilitate abilities in content areas. There is no quick fix or single solution to the problem of education. We need to look at each school, classroom and student individually and develop programs of study that apply to them.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Learning and Memory strategies

I found The Source for Learning & Memory Strategies by Regina G. Richards in a free pile and picked it up. Although it is more than a decade old and the fields of neuroscience and learning are a rapidly blossoming field, the book proved to be valuable. The first part of the book is three chapters about the brain and learning. Ms. Richards goes over major brain parts that impact learning, how memories are made, memory problems and memory facilitators. Although the current state of science has a much more nuanced understanding, this information is accurate and accessible for the lay person. The second part of the book is a series of chapters arranged by subject area including a rich variety of strategies for learning. Many of these are hashed out in other sources but the compilation is useful.

Her description of memory is as follows:
  • sensory memory- fleeting (less than 20 seconds), heavily filtered by attention, meaning and patterns and emotion. The vast majority of our sensory input is filtered out without recognition. People with ADHD have issues with this filtering function.
  • short-term memory/ working memory- this is where we manipulate information and includes the following roles:
    • holding an idea in mind while developing, elaborating, clarifying or using it
    • recalling from long term memory while holding some information in short-term memory
    • holding together in memory the components of a task while completing that task
    • keeping together a series of new pieces of information so that they remain meaningful
    • holding a long-term plan while thinking about a short-range need. p. 23
She does not mention the Halstead length which refers to the amount of information that you can put into those Miller defined plus or minus seven chunks. (Halstead was a computer program studying programmer success who discovered that people with greater Halstead lengths could tackle greater problems.)
  • Long term memory- contains several formats- episodic, sematic (fact), procedural, classical and priming. Different types of memories are stored differently- your trip to Disneyland is in a different format than the multiplication tables which is different from the wince you make before someone scrapes their fingernails on a chalkboard or the how to hit a baseball or how to anticipate what will happen in a Cinderella archetype story.
  • Retrieval- how to get things out.
This format explains how breakdowns in memory and learning occur. A student can have an excellent memory for mathematical processes but a terrible memory for people's names or even English vocabulary. Figuring out specifically where the breakdown occurs is critical to teaching students to manage their memory system effectively.

Throughout this section she models how to use techniques to enhance memory. A sweet device to illustrate her point.

One technique that I really appreciated was her use of kinesthetic activities. In college I heard a lot about using kinesthetic approaches but very few examples of them. She repeated refers to using a mini-tramp to help encode memories. This involves jumping on the tramp while chanting, singing, or repeating information to be recalled. It brought to mind latitude and longitude jumping jacks that I have had students do: Latitude= arms to side and legs spread, longitude= arms above head and feet together while chanting the appropriate term to reinforce what direction the lines go. It really works. She also emphasized singing or chanting information to encode it in more places in the brain and to cue recall. Teaching the Wilson reading system, I have had kids stuck on what sound t makes and merely putting my thumb in the air is enough of a cue to get them unstuck.

 Another key idea is that we put things into memory based on their similarities to what we know but retrieve them based on differences. That is why we have easily confused words, terms and concepts. Students understand they are related but do not get how they are different. If a trapezoid and a rhombus both have a set of parallel sides and sides that slope- how do I know which one I am talking about? A teacher needs to demonstrate how new material is similar to what is known to get it into memory. Then they need to examine how it is different from other related concepts so that the proper ideas are recalled when needed.