Drop Dead, Data Drops

When you have three data drops a semester, the term is always ending. Data drops are always painful without fail because of the sheer amount of work they require. At the end of each section, we need to enter the students’ daily grades and section test scores into the school system.

Grading the tests takes the equivalent of a full workday. Then, entering all the grades into the school’s system takes another hour or so. This is all done while teaching a normal load, meaning the time is split over the course of the week and or the work is taken home. All the teachers become stressed during this time, and often fight through small colds that crop up from overwork. And then, just as teachers are recovering and getting into the swing of things again, they need to prepare for the next data drop, because the term is always ending.

However, this is arguably not the biggest problem. I would argue that the primary problem is that it takes away from student learning. As the grading sections are all less than two months, we design the rhythms of the curriculum around the testing schedule instead of designing around the content. Also, with such short grading terms, student grades suffer. If they did not understand the content in one or two weeks, they do not have enough time to improve their grade, because the term is always ending.

Another negative to this is that the testing schedule discourages good teaching practice. Teachers are unable to stretch students with various research and application projects because by the time the content has been covered and students are prepared to apply/research on their own, they need to prepare for the next test because the term is always ending.

I firmly believe that fewer data drops will lead to more useful data, happier teachers, and better-educated students. However, it takes time to change a system. But, I can’t simply sit by and quietly go about my work because it’s not helpful for my students. I need to work to change my school’s system for me and my students’ good. I want the data drops to drop dead, not me.

The Plan

  1. Talk with other teachers
  2. Talk with the headteacher
  3. Organize a plan (including research)
  4. Talk with administration (Principal & Dean)
    • Get their rationale for the current system
    • Communicate teacher concerns
    • Propose alternate plan
  5. Hope for the best
    • Work to continue the dialogue



Schema Aquisition

According to Wikipedia, a schema is

a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information. Schemata influence attention and the absorption of new knowledge: people are more likely to notice things that fit into their schema, while re-interpreting contradictions to the schema as exceptions or distorting them to fit. Schemata have a tendency to remain unchanged, even in the face of contradictory information. Schemata can help in understanding the world and the rapidly changing environment. People can organize new perceptions into schemata quickly as most situations do not require complex thought when using schema, since automatic thought is all that is required”

Schema acquisition is necessary in order for students to effectively solve problems and think critically. In an attempt to achieve this, many teaching strategies focus on giving students a large amount of practice with a particular problem type. On the surface, this approach makes a lot of sense. If students are learning multiplication and division, then they need to practice the skill in order to become proficient. But evidence has shown that this conventional approach is not always the most effective.

The studies on this involved giving students problems to solve. The problems could be solved using either a means-ends analysis or by using a rule based on the problem structure (schema). Studies found that while the participants using a means-ends analysis were able to effectively complete the problems, they would not learn the essential aspects of the problem’s structure. Meaning that they would achieve success without much actual learning.

A means-ends analysis approach to problem-solving has two main weaknesses, selective attention and cognitive processing capacity. The means-ends approach involves a student keeping the current problem state and the goal state, along with the relationship between the problem state and goal state in mind at once. They do not necessarily think back on previously solved, similar problems. As a result, the cognitive load is much higher for someone using a means-ends approach (often involving working backward) as opposed to someone using a schema (working forwards). The cognitive load of a means-ends approach can interfere with the development of a schema because the cognitive load is so high.

Solving a problem using a schema allows for students to work forward because the schema holds the related problem states and the procedures associated with them. As teachers, we should strive to help our students develop their own, effective schemas for solving problems and applying concepts. One way to do this is to direct students to use a nonspecific goal strategy. We can do this by changing conventional (specific) goal questions to nonspecific goal questions.

  • Conventional Goal Question: What direction does gravity pull the bird down?
  • Nonspecific Goal Question: How does gravity act on the bird?

That being said, it is important for students to have a basic mental model in place before moving to nonspecific problems. If they don’t have a basic mental model, then nonspecific questions are often unhelpful. This fits with other cognitive science research such as concreteness fading. Basically, start concrete and get vaguer over time. An example of this is telling a student 2+2=4 by showing them two groups of two apples, then put the apples together and voila! Four apples. After the student has mastered two apples plus two apples, you can give them a problem that is two oranges plus two oranges. Eventually moving to strictly using numbers, 2+2=4.

Nonspecific goals are effective because this type of problem cannot be solved by a means-ends analysis (requiring a high cognitive load). Functionally this means that students will be using a problem-solving method that has a lower cognitive load, allowing them to devote more of their working memory towards building a schema. So, as teachers, we should strive to teach students how to solve problems, and we should develop that by giving nonspecific questions in order to help them develop the schemas necessary.






Experts-Novices: Critical Thinking and Background Knowledge

A schema is a mental structure that allows problem solvers to recognize the particular category a problem lies within, and then use an effective strategy to solve that problem. Experts have multiple schemas, allowing them to quickly move towards a solution. Whereas novices do not, so they must use a means-ends analysis approach.

A means-ends analysis requires a large cognitive load because it works to eliminate possible answers (In the beginning, there is a near infinite field of possible answers). This is done by working backward from the goal, setting subgoals up along the way. In contrast, experts start moving towards a solution right away.

Experts and novices not only approach problems differently, they look at them in different ways as well. Studies have found that experts will categorize problems based on what strategies are used to solve them, while novices will categorize problems based on their surface structures. One finding from this type of study is that domain-specific knowledge is integral for critical thinking to be effective. You have to have the relevant background knowledge in order to correctly apply the appropriate skill to solve a problem.

You can’t think critically about what you do not know. This is a particularly controversial statement within the field of education. But it should not be. It is very commonsensical when you work to isolate the variables. For example, if a chemist was going to write an essay talking about how life works because of chemistry and you were going to write one as well, theirs would likely be much better. The reason being that they have a wealth of background knowledge to draw from. Whereas you, have Google. You can find the same information, but you will not understand it as deeply or be able to apply it as thoroughly because the knowledge has not been sitting in your head.

Another example of this can be seen when we look at foreign languages. How did the phrase “你吃了嗎?” originate and why is it used as a greeting? If you cannot read that sentence, you cannot think critically about it. It really is rather simple, background knowledge is necessary (critical even) for critical thinking. Think about it.



School Policy: Pass/Fail

Administrators should be fine with failing students. What I mean by this is, if the student has earned an ‘F’ then they get an ‘F’. Teachers should give students every chance to succeed. Including providing extra copies of missing assignments and allowing work to be turned in late (with a deduction). Teachers should not be expected to do more than this, their focus should be on teaching, not making students do homework. So, from an administrator’s perspective, if the teachers are giving students every chance to pass and they still don’t (and there is documentation), administration should not have a problem with giving the students a failing grade.

Administrators who think that every student should get a high grade or are against failing students are causing problems because teachers are forced to essentially make up grades. This muddies the waters of feedback as the student and the parents are essentially being lied to about their ability and progress level. The clear truth (grades reflecting achievement) is better than muddy truth (grades reflecting achievement plus fluff).

While I believe schools should fail students who earn it, I also believe that schools should have an explicit policy in place for this. Not merely a verbal, or inferred one. By being explicit, teachers will know what to do. I think that a good policy in regard to this would include giving the student and parents multiple notices of their grades before the grades are due. Students should be able to make up missing work within a reasonable timeframe with a reasonable deduction for being late. And that’s it.

As a policy, this might look something like,

  1. Teachers will send progress reports home during the middle of the term and at the end of the term that will be returned with a guardian’s signature.
    1. Progress reports will include the student’s overall grade and individual assignment grades.
  2. Students will have one week from the date the progress reports are sent home to turn in any missing/late work for partial credit.
    1. Work that is done/turned in after this point will not be accepted for any credit.

I believe that it is important for the progress reports to include the individual assignment grades because some students and most parents will want to know what specifically was not turned in. Making this clear helps parents to see exactly what their child needs to do in order to improve, which should reduce unnecessary meetings with frustrated parents.

Giving a “short” deadline is important because students need a final deadline. Otherwise, they will keep on not turning in assignments (As they have had the entire term before the notice was home to make up the work and have not). Another reason for the “short” deadline is to not overload the teacher with student work to grade.

Putting these policies in place, and following them can reduce headaches teachers face from upset parents because parents will be informed ahead of time. This type of policy also encourages accountability. Students are responsible for their learning. Teachers are responsible to help students learn and to remove barriers (that are within the teacher’s control) to learning.

By not having some sort of clear policy in place for failing students, your school is setting itself up to fail.

Does your school pass or fail?

Why Vocabulary (Which is Background Knowledge) Matters

As an elementary science teacher, I primarily view my job as a vocabulary teacher because students need to know the science words before they can apply the concepts. As a result of this, I have begun to take the vocabulary teaching portion of my job more and more seriously.

A study that clearly shows the importance of background knowledge (vocabulary is an integral part of background knowledge) for comprehension was done by (Rect and Leslie, 1988). This study found that students who had low reading abilities and high content knowledge were able to comprehend a text better than students with a high reading ability and low content knowledge.

In short, the students with high content knowledge were able to “chunk” the important information together in order to retain it. While the students with low content knowledge needed to focus on every piece of information at the same time and as a result had a more difficult time visualizing and comprehending the content.

A scenario similar to this likely plays out in your classroom everyday. If you are teaching a unit on mass movement (landslides, flooding, etc), students will need to have background knowledge in the rock cycle and the environments you will be applying the new vocabulary to. Those that don’t will find their working memory to be overwhelmed as they will essentially be learning about the rock cycle, environments, and the new vocabulary simultaneously. This will lead to cognitive overload, poor performance, and worse, poor comprehension.

However, students that have strong background knowledge of environments and the rock cycle will likely understand and be able to apply the new vocabulary with much more confidence and accuracy than those without. The reason being, these students can focus on applying the new vocabulary to environments that they are familiar with. They have more background knowledge which reduces their cognitive load allowing them to focus on learning the new vocabulary.

In order to help my students who have less background knowledge, I try to give concrete examples of the vocabulary and its applications. The concrete examples are easily attainable for most students, and it gives them a reference point of a correct example (a worked problem). The students can then refer back to the concrete example as we apply the vocabulary to new circumstances.

An example of this would be with flooding. I would show a picture/short video of a flood in a place that had many different types of plants after giving students the definition. Then we would talk about how the flood impacted the environment (weathering, erosion, deposition). This example is more concrete because the students can see what is happening even if they are unfamiliar with the environment the flood is happening in. Then, as the class goes on, we will continually refer back to the video, explaining why flood produced those particular results.

This would then be the pattern I would want my students to apply to other situations. Ex: A flood in an environment without many plants. The students can check back to their notes to help them apply the vocabulary (flooding) to a new environment.

Having sufficient subject vocabulary is integral for students to succeed, as it allows for them to focus on the content (what you want students to learn) instead of getting lost in the delivery.



End of Term

The end of a term is always hectic. You have to finish up all of your grading. Students are rushing to turn in late work before the final deadline that you set to close to your own final deadline. You have tests that need a quick turn around. And your school may have special events celebrating the term’s completion.

Teaching has its ebbs and flows, and I am ready for an ebb to come. I always find it challenging to not work too many hours because there is always more to do. And this is especially true at the end of a grading period.

That being said, I need to work less during the end of term season. I burned myself out and would likely get sick if we didn’t have a few days off. I was stressed at home and not fun to be around. Rest is important. If I don’t rest, my temper is much shorter, it takes longer to plan my lessons, and they are not as good.

As a teacher, I need to for my own health (physical and mental). And, if I am too stubborn to prioritize my health, I should at least prioritize my students by resting so they can have a well-prepared lesson with a calm teacher.

Who is resting with me?