Don’t Be Sexy: Just Teach!

Don’t be sexy, just teach!

Education is rather famous for its buzzwords/directives/policies that are here today gone tomorrow (STEM, STEAM, student-centered, sage on the stage, guide on the side, DI, di, montessori, discovery learning, inquiry-based instruction, explicit teaching, project-based learning, jigsaw, stations, lead learner, cloud classroom, Genius Hour, No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and many more). Some of these, I think are important approaches, and will prove themselves to be timeless. Others are neither inherently good or bad. Some, are harmful.

As teachers, we must be aware of this. Know that the latest craze is likely just a flash in the pan. If it fits and it helps students learn, do it. If not, don’t. Do not use things just because they are fun/sexy/new, use them because they are useful.

The fundamentals of education do not change, because the fundamentals of how humans learn don’t change. There have obviously been changes, but those changes have been cosmetic. Even the big ones. For example, computers are objectively a revolutionary technology. They have impacted us in a myriad of ways (education included). But even computers, with immense power both for and over us, (Is Google Making Us Stupid?) have not fundamentally changed how we learn.

Before electricity humans learned by observing, being told, and attempting. And now, we learn by observing, being told, and attempting. This is because we essentially have the same brains as our ancestors. Our knowledge is stored in our brains. Our neurons fire in a certain pattern, bringing the memory (information) to mind. The more we do this, the stronger the memory becomes (Learning Rewires the Brain).

Because how we learn has not changed, we can look at what time has tested to see what works.

So, no matter what your school is doing, apply time/research-tested approaches.

  1. Spaced repetition
  2. Retrieval Practice
  3. Elaboration
  4. Interleaving
  5. Concrete Examples
  6. Dual Coding

The best resources I have found are from the Learning Scientists and Retrieval Practice websites. Both have articles explaining the research base and resources for teachers to use.

You can apply any of the 6 strategies in your teaching no matter what your context is.

Ultimately, don’t blindly follow the sexy new thing (the sexy new thing can be BOTH inquiry-based learning and explicit teaching depending on your crowd). If you know how humans learn, know what works, and why it does, then you can apply that to whatever new, sexy education thing comes your way.

Don’t be sexy, just teach.


Using Flashcards in Class: A Reflection

As I have mentioned before, I am working on integrating flashcards into my classroom. I create physical flashcards by importing an excel file into Quizlet and printing them out (For a how-to, check out How To Make Knowledge Organizers And Flashcards). I make the physical copies for my students because I teach elementary school and want my students to have access. I can only guarantee they have access to the digital format in class.

While flashcards have shown themselves to be very useful for vocabulary development and key concept understanding, I do not know that I would increase there use in my classes. I think that I am at a sweet spot in the amount of use. I am just tinkering with the “how to” as opposed to the “how much”.

Part of this tinkering has led me to lean more towards physical flashcards over digital ones. The reason being that even though digital flashcards offer a spacing algorithm for improved learning they also offer increased distractions. My students seem magnetically drawn to the Gravity game on Quizlet. Even when given explicit instructions, a few students still manage to find their way into the game version instead of a study version. This can easily reduce Quizlet’s effectiveness and negate the advantage of spacing with algorithms.

So, due to my circumstances, I have used physical flashcards more than digital ones. I have trained my students in how to use them and will give students class time (generally during a “warm-up”) to practice about once per week. The flashcard sessions last between 5-10 minutes, which is enough time for students to go through the entire deck (1 chapter) at least once. I have also assigned flashcard homework about once per week (with no real way of checking to see if students completed the homework or not).

Currently, my task is in making the flashcards feel less clunky. Part of the solution is simple. I must get used to using them in class, and my students must get used to the new routine. The other part of the solution is more complex. I have already discovered that digital flashcards increase distractions. But getting students to effectively practice with physical flashcards is more difficult since it is manual.

I have found that I must model and explain the procedure every single time we use the flashcards. For example, I explain that they need to have a correct pile and an incorrect pile. Then, when finished, they must go through the incorrect pile until all cards are in the correct pile. This is tedious, but necessary because I want the flashcards to be truly useful, not simply an activity that takes time.

I am sure that I will refine my approach more with time. In spite of the difficulties that come with change, I have found flashcards to be extremely useful and would recommend that their use would be expanded.

How To Make Knowledge Organizers and Flashcards And Reduce Your Workload

Knowledge organizers are a great way to…organize knowledge. They are also versatile and can be used in any subject. They should be used for the “core” information in a unit. This is information that you want all students to master. It will obviously include key terms, but it is not limited to memorizing vocabulary. Knowledge organizers should include concept based questions as well.

How to make a Knowledge Organizer

I start all my knowledge Organizers (KOs) in Excel/Googel Sheets. I do this because I use a brilliant tool created by Adam Boxer, Retrieval Roulette (Click on the link to see how to use Retrieval Roulettes, click on this one to see completed Retrieval Roulettes). I start by inputting the terms from an entire chapter of my science textbook.

The terms are in one column and the definitions are in another.

Next, I highlight the terms and definitions and copy them into a Word document. My KO is started. (In this example, I have already added concept questions to this Excel sheet, so the vocabulary words are spread out. To split them, I just insert a row below the last definition for the lesson.)

The Start of a KO.

The next step is to add key concept questions. I begin this in the Excel Retrieval Roulette file as well. As mentioned above, I insert the questions under the last vocabulary word for that lesson. To do so, I add a row and click the repeat button to add rows as necessary.1I repeat this step for each of the lessons in the chapter. Next, I select the questions that I think are most important for my students to grasp and I insert those into the KO using the same method as above.

Below is an example of a finished, diagram heavy KO.

After I make a KO for the chapter, I then create a flashcard set. Again, this relies on the Excel program and, as a bonus is incredibly simple. I simply highlight everything for that chapter and import it into Quizlet.

  1. Click create study set 2
  2. Click on import from Excel 3.PNG
  3. Select and copy the content you want to include from the excel file 4.PNG
  4. Paste the info here 5.PNG
  5. Click import 6.PNG
  6. Give your flashcard set a title, and then create it!

Next, depending on your students and school, physical flashcards may be more practical. Luckily, Quizlet offers an exceedingly simple solution. You can print your set of flashcards out.

  1. Click on print
  2. Select the size of flashcards you want
  3. Select double-sided printing
  4. Open the pdf
  5. Print


I’ve included some sample cards so you can get an idea of their sizes.

Small Double-Sided Flashcards Large Double-Sided Flashcards

The last thing I want to mention is that this process has greatly reduced my prep time (Once I figured out how to use the various programs/systems). I basically have my tests prewritten in the excel file and just need to reformat them when I create a test. I can also easily use the excel file to AUTOMATICALLY generate quizzes (seriously check out the retrieval roulette links at the beginning of the article, they are an absolute gold mine!)

And, as always, you must teach your students how to use the KO and flashcards even if it seems intuitive. If you don’t then your students will not benefit.

Flashcards in the Classroom

In this brief article, I intend to explain how I will put my previous article (how and why flashcards are effective) into practice.

First, I started by teaching my students how to use flashcards. This is paramount! Do not assume they understand how to use them effectively. To model how to use flashcards I borrowed a student’s set and put it under the visualizer so the whole class could see.

First, I read the card.


Then I modeled my thought process.

“Hmm. Hydrosphere, well, I know that hydro means water and I know that sphere means ball. Hmm. Earth is round and has water. Hmm. Water on Earth? Wait. All the water on Earth!”

Next, I flip the card over and check my answer.

“Awesome! I got it right. Ok, so now I will put this card into the correct pile.”

I move on to the next card.

“What causes convection currents in the geosphere?”

I model my thinking again.

“Hmm. Geosphere, well that is the Earth. Hmm. The wind causes convection currents because the sun heats the Earth unevenly.”

I flip the card over.

“Oh. I was wrong. Convection currents in the geosphere means inside of the Earth. Convection currents are actually caused by heat from the Earth’s core heats the rock and which makes it less dense so it rises. Then it cools, gains density, and falls.”

I put the card in an incorrect pile.

I then tell the students to finish the deck. Next, students need to go through the “incorrect” pile until all the cards are in the “correct” pile.

I tell my students that they must read the card and say the answer in their head before flipping the card over. I also give them a small printout that includes the steps.

Introducing New Flashcards

I introduce new KOs and flashcards on the last day of a unit because I give some sort of assessment, and when students finish they can pick up their KO and flashcards to get a head start on the new unit.

When students finish the assessment, they will turn it in and pick up a knowledge organizer (KO) and a flashcard sheet (or several) that includes vocabulary and concept Q&As based on the KO (I will explore how I make them in a future post. For now, just note that this has helped reduce my workload).

In order to assure that students actually cut out and use the flashcards, I will begin the next class by having students practice using their flashcards either by themselves or with a partner for 5-10 minutes. This approach allows me to give a quick check to see if they actually did the work and serves to get the students familiar with the chapter’s terms/concepts. A study by Kelly Grillo in 2011 found that flashcards can have a positive impact in a short amount of time, at least in terms of test scores.

One benefit I have found in implementing flashcards is that all my students are more familiar with the terms, and my more motivated students learn the entire chapter’s terms by the end of the first week. This has helped my class to engage with key concepts and to apply what we are learning on a deeper level. I have also found, both with KOs and flashcards that it improves how I use class time in the margins. If we finish a lesson early and there are a few minutes left, I can have students practice their flashcards or review their KO which helps reinforce what we are learning. Before I would ask if there were any questions or would ramble about what we were learning. Both can be useful and helpful, but they are not the best ways to spend class time.

I am sure that I will refine my methods in the future, but I am quite happy with how integrating KOs and flashcards has been so far.

Why Are Flashcards So Effective?

There are two types of flashcards, physical and digital. As for which type is better, there is evidence that goes both ways. However, a recent study (Dizon and Tang, 2017) found that both are essentially equally effective if students have been taught how to use them. For teachers, I think we are fine to use whatever type works better for our context. Don’t stress about which form to use, just make sure you teach your students how to use them.

Flashcards are effective because they force students to use the study strategy of retrieval practice. When applying retrieval practice to a flashcard, students read the cue (question) and then they must retrieve, from memory, the information (answer). Then students look at the other side of the card and get feedback on whether they were correct or not. Each time a student retrieves the information correctly, they are reconstructing the memory of that fact/concept. This reconstruction makes it easier for students to recall the relevant fact/concept in the future.

The formatting of flashcards also lends itself to spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is exactly what it sounds like, spacing the repetition of the material out. The meaning and impact of spaced repetition becomes more clear when contrasted with cramming, its opposite. Cramming can be somewhat effective at improving student performance, but it doesn’t help much for actual learning as most of what a student crams will be forgotten shortly after the test (Bjork, 2012). Spaced repetition helps with both test performance and actual learning.

Now for some hard data. Flashcards have been shown to improve student performance on tests. A study found that students who used flashcards to study for every test in an “Intro To Psyc” class much better than those who did not use flashcards (Golding, Wasarhaley, & Fletcher, 2012). Another reason that teachers should use flashcards is that subject-specific vocabulary is the strongest predictor of student performance on content-based assessments (Espin and Deno, 1995). A study done by Nate Kornell looked at flashcards and test scores found that for 90% of students, spacing out their practice was more effective than cramming (Kornell, 2011). The same Kornell study found that students who used a spaced repetition flashcard strategy scored over 30% higher than students who used a massing flashcard strategy. In this case, the massing strategy involved using a small deck of flashcards on specific topics (lessons), whereas the spaced repetition strategy used a large set of flashcards that included information for the whole chapter. This provides evidence that flashcards are more effective when they utilize the interleaving study strategy.

As teachers, we care about test performance (It is important!) but actual learning (putting information into long-term memory) matters more. I believe that the above information gives strong evidence for utilizing retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and interleaving as study/teaching strategies. I also think that flashcards can be a way to integrate these study strategies into a simple, effective, and student-friendly form.


International Teacher Recruitment Resources

If you are interested in teaching overseas, a key part of that is actually getting the job. Below are a handful of websites for potential teachers to check out. There are websites and organizations that will offer free food and housing in return for you being a teacher. These organizations should be avoided as they take advantage of teachers. Teaching is a job and you ought to get paid for it. Even if you are only teaching so you can travel and experience new cultures.

Below are some good recruitment websites I have found over the years. Good luck Job hunting!

Dave’s ESL Cafe

This is primarily a website for ESL jobs but does offer other opportunities as well. The website includes various forums where you can learn more about specific schools or countries. There are also forums where you can find various ideas for your own classroom.

Teach Anywhere

Teach Anywhere generally offers higher paying jobs that are in international or bilingual schools. As they primarily advertise for international schools, you will need to be a licensed teacher. A benefit is that most of the jobs will offer nice benefits such as free/subsidized housing, roundtrip airfare, relocation allowance, professional development funds, and insurance (generally not retirement though).

Teach Away

Teach Away is a good website that has a bit of everything. It is clean and easy to navigate. They post a variety of jobs ranging from entry level cram school positions all the way to superintendent positions that manage multiple schools.

The International Educator (TIE)

TIE is focused exclusively on international school jobs. It is a subscription service and costs $39 USD per year for web only. I do not know very much about it, however, I may check it out soon. A note for those who may be wary (perfectly reasonable) the organization has been around since 1986 and is recommended by the US government, so it is likely reputable.

Finally, it is also good to go to the source. This is much harder to do overseas, but you can just do a quick Google search. For example, say you want to teach in Dubai. Just Google “International Schools Dubai.” Then you will get a list of potential jobs (Note, you will not find all the schools this way. Some you will only find if you know their names. Also try “List of international schools Dubai”)

I’m sure there are other good websites that I have missed. Which ones do you recommend?

So You Want To Teach Overseas?: 4 Types of Schools

Step one to teaching overseas is narrowing your options. After all, overseas is every country but your own! What are you interested in? What cultures seem fascinating? What kind of food do you like? Will you be able to give up modern conveniences? How much money do you need to make? Do you speak the local language? Are you willing to learn the local language? All of these things are important to look into and consider.

Once you have decided upon a country, you need to figure out what type of school you want to work in. There are four basic choices international schools, private schools, local schools, and cram schools.

International Schools

International schools typically pay the best and have good resources. However, they can also have incredibly high expectations (in both a good and bad way). This can lead to a high turnover rate in spite of all the perks. I have been able to grow as a teacher by teaching in these schools due to the high expectations and pace. I would recommend working in this type of school for the pay and professional development opportunities. But, potentially even larger than that, these schools tend to be run by other foreigners. This means that the school’s culture will be more similar to your own, reducing countless headaches.

Private Schools

Private schools will fit into one of two categories. Either they are entirely local and you will be the ESL teacher, or they are entirely bilingual and you could teach any subject in any capacity depending on your skills and the school’s need. In the first instance, it is very important to be knowledgeable about the school’s curriculum. I have heard of schools using locally produced ESL books that come preloaded with grammatical errors (This is more common than you would hope). Depending on the school’s policy, you may be required to teach grammar incorrectly because the teacher’s guide (answer sheet) is your Bible and going against it is heretical (“What do you mean this isn’t correct? The government made it. Are you saying the government is wrong?”). Alternative grammar facts have made it big in the ESL world before Trump made them big in our world.

If you are teaching in a bilingual private school, you will likely have a bit more freedom. However, it is important to keep in mind that the school will likely be run by locals. This can be complicated because the school will promote a western style of education to parents (and to teachers in staff meetings), and then they will be upset that you have not done every single page in a workbook. You will walk a cultural minefield, and will likely make multiple missteps (I sure have). Keep on teaching and maintain a positive attitude and good work ethic and you will be alright.

Local Schools

If you teach in a local school, you will likely be an ESL teacher (potentially for the entire school). You will see your students once per week (potentially twice) and the focus tends to be on speaking/listening or writing. (Note: The same caveats about bad ESL books apply for public schools.)

The other scenario for teaching in local schools is a situation room. This means that multiple schools (generally elementary schools) will visit your location and you only see each class once per semester/year. In this circumstance, the teacher will craft a lesson plan around various props. For example, the teacher will teach a lesson on ordering food in a restaurant. Then students will take on roles as customer/waiter and practice the vocabulary. This is not the most effective for actual learning, but it seems to be prevalent for some reason (It is also an easy job. You only need a handful of lessons each semester.)

Cram Schools

Cram schools are where students go to school, after school. In some countries (particularly in Asia) they double as child care because it can actually be cheaper to send your child to a class than a daycare. Cram schools are great if you are looking to travel because they are much more flexible with off days. In cram schools, the students’ behavior tends to be a bit worse because they go there after a full day of school. And many students know that their “grades” in this context don’t really matter. These schools tend to pay less than most other schools, but it also tends to be fewer hours of work. If you want, since it is an hourly position, you will often have the opportunity to add hours if your company has room (and they like you).

As with any school, context is king. I have found that your work experience will be very much shaped by your superiors. A good administration is better than gold. Before you get a job, do all you can to find out about the school’s work environment.

Questions to ask:

How long does the average teacher work here? What is the marking policy? How late do most teachers work? How do I take personal days off? Do you have a professional development fund? What is the school discipline system? Ask if you can talk with current teachers? (can be tough if you are doing the interview over skype)

Good luck, it is a great adventure! It is hard, but worth it.