Saturday, May 28, 2016

Practicing Skills, Strategies & Processes

The Marzano Center has published a series called Essentials for Achieving Rigor. Kelly Harmon, Robert J. Marzano, Kathy Marx and Ria A. Schmidt collaborated to write Practicing Skills, Strategies, & Processes: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Develop Proficiency. The book is arranged so that each chapter discusses one technique. Every chapter includes a chart with implementation guidelines, elementary and secondary examples drawn primarily from ELA and math classrooms, common errors in implementation, and scaffolding and extension ideas.

In the resource room we tend to do lots of practice so I thought this book might have some insights into the skill. They identify two categories of practice with a couple of techniques to each. Guided Practice involves working with the teacher and contains close monitoring, worked examples and frequent structured practice. Independent Practice includes fluency, varied practice and practice before tests.

Close monitoring as a separate technique is interesting. Back in my early days of teaching we talked about monitor and adjust instruction. This has an element of that idea. The authors recommend that initial attempts be supervised carefully. It also includes the idea that practice, especially when initially learning a skill needs to be correct. When we practice something incorrectly, we are learning it badly and it takes more work to correct misunderstandings or unteach information or processes than to teach it originally. One central component then is to not assign independent practice until the student is successful under guided practice. This is contrary to many homework assignments I have seen children work with. One source I saw indicated that if a student cannot complete an assignment with 85% accuracy, it should not be homework. We should not expect parents to teach the material or the student to have to look up how to complete the task. This is asking for trouble. Further, if we assign independent practice too early in the learning cycle, we risk students not learning the material at all.

The chapter on frequent structured practice had a gem in it for me. On page 49 they suggest that practice at this stage be every 24 hours or less after the initial learning. This does not mean send the kids home with an assignment and expect them to complete it on their own. This means the next day practice it again under supervision. Daily practice of new skills is important. We know this with reading. That is why primary teachers ask students to read every night at home. It provides the practice with early reading skills that are essential for learning to read. One thing that the authors did not address was how to accommodate this idea in an alternate day style schedule common to many secondary environments. If research says that structured practice needs to occur within 24 hours, these schedule types eliminate the possibility of such and occurrence.  As students grow comfortable with the skill, the practice becomes spaced with longer intervals.

Fluency was another interesting chapter. They define fluency as having two separate strands- automatic processing, such as reading and math facts, and controlled processing, such as writing a research paper. They authors strongly suggest students learn multiplication facts to automaticity. In the world of special education we sometimes suggest that students do not need to do this- they have calculators. Unfortunately, if we want our students to conquer algebra, they do really need to have mastered multiplication facts. Without this automatic knowledge, they are slowed to a crawl, forgetting what they are doing mid problem and finding the topic exceedingly challenging. One key feature of fluency is that students need to have learned the discrete skills prior to focusing on speed. If reading fluency is focused on speed rather than comprehension, students become word callers. If students do not understand how to write all the elements of a paragraph (topic sentence, details, conclusions and transitions), they should not be asked to do so for homework.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Engaging the rewired brain information

David A. Sousa's book Engaging the Rewired Brain provides a large volume of research on how the brain is impacted by the deluge of technology we now have. Interspersed throughout the text are summary statements that describe impact. Some of these impacts are as follows:
  • Television watching by infants and toddlers may hinder their spatial skill development and delay their development of language. (p. 28)
  • Parents are often reluctant to limit the amount of television young children watch, because that may create friction and discipline problems in the family. ( p. 29)
  • We can assume that children who spend their early years in front of screens will eventually have adult brains hardwired to process information at a frantic pace (p. 29)
  • Students often use the word addicted to describe their dependence on technology (p. 31)
  • Teachers have a bigger challenge today creating attention-getting introductions to their lessons(p. 39)
  • Mind-wandering is pervasive and occurs frequently in classes where there is little or no student engagement (p.41)
  • Despite popular belief there is no neuroscientific evidence that attention span in typical students is getting shorter (p. 44)
  • Students today have had very little practice in sustained attention (p. 46)
  • The average capacity of working memory appears to be declining. (p. 49)
  • Whenever teachers can tie emotions to curriculum content, students are more likely to remember it and even negative emotions can sometimes result in a positive learning experience (p. 55)
  • The closer new learning touches the students' interests, the quicker meaning is established (p. 58)
  • Practice makes permanent not perfect (p. 62)
  • Educational video games are excellent examples of how to motivate students and the power of practice (p. 62)
  • Practicing new learning over longer intervals of time, called distributed practice, is the key to retention ( p. 64)
  • Immediate and specific feedback is one of the most powerful factors for increasing student achievement (p. 68)
  • Educators should prioritize curriculum so that students know exactly what they need to remember (p. 71)
  • The brains of children watching cartoons operated with about half of their executive function capacity compared to children who watched educational games or were drawing (p. 76)
  • Internet addicted adolescents had a lower density of gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for decision making when compared to non-addicted adolescents. (p. 81)
  • Because of the Internet, students may become gathers and reporters of information, and not curious and original thinkers (p. 81)
  • Teachers should sue the internet to expand our creativity and problem-solving skills rather than replace them (p 83)
  • Playing certain video games can improve executive functions such as problem solving and decision making. (p. 90)
  • The integration of educational video games is not merely to engage students, but to enhance and extend their learning (p. 91)
  • Young children addicted to technology are likely to perceive social interaction as device-centered rather than person-centered (p 101)
  • The more friends an adolescent has on Facebook, the more stressful it was to use. (p. 105)
  • Facebook did not help individuals with low self-esteem, but rather exposed them to disparagement from respondents. (p. 106)
  • Instead of sleeping, teens are continuing their online activities in their bedroom into the late night hours. (p. 107)
  • Content-centered texting can improve teens' writing in informal essays, predict reading ability, and benefit students' phonological awareness (p 108)
  • Technology provides an opportunity for students to understand the social implications of what they are studying (p. 110)

These bits of information are surrounded with the research and suggestions for how to address the concern or leverage the action. Of particular concern is the impact of technology on executive function. While some educational and problem solving games have a positive impact, the games that many students like to play- violent shoot 'em up, mechanical ball exploding, wild car driving or X-box type sports- have a negative impact. Finding ways to engage students in problem solving SIM games or Mindstorms as an alternative may be important.

Another interesting implication is around young children. Parents using technology to quiet children down in the car, restaurant or home tends to reduce language skills and ability to focus. We need to advocate for more interaction and less techno-sitting. The move for universal pre-K may be important for developing language. That being said, we will need to be wary of technology in these environments. Students get lots of opportunity to play with technology at home. At school they need to engage in collaborative play, human interactions and imaginative activity.

Another concern to me is the reduction in working memory. Telephone numbers were created as a 7 digit sequence because it was consistent with working memory. If students struggle with maintaining that number of bits of information, it has implications in reading. Reading comprehension requires working memory skills. If students cannot keep as much information at hand, we may need to change how we read- more focus on graphic organizers and summarization to help us to juggle information. I have a math textbook from 1898. It asks students to be able to mentally calculate long division. How many of our students could do that today. Not just wrestle with the procedure, a task many students struggle with, but actually maintain in memory the numbers you are working with and arrive at an answer. This type of practice might become more important in developing memory practice to help our students be able to successfully compete in the workforce.

I think the most important take away, however, is that teachers do matter. We need to find ways to leverage learning through technology. We need to focus on higher level thinking and problem solving rather than merely rote activities. This may mean a reduction on a dependence on multiple choice testing and an increase in more expansive projects, writing and speaking opportunities. It means that we need to not depend on the latest and greatest technology in the classroom, but technology used to enhance instruction not to replace the same activity with a screen.