Clear Philosophies Create Clear Discourse

Part 1 of this series explains why having a worldview is inevitable and that this shapes your approach to teaching
Part 2 makes the case for deeply understanding your worldview and philosophy of education

There are numerous benefits that come along for the ride when you have a well thought out worldview and philosophy of education. For the teacher, most of the benefits are between you and your students. 

Clarity and Confidence

We should be relatively confident in applying our philosophy of education. If you are not, then you should search for a more robust one you are able to trust because teaching from a place of doubt isn’t enjoyable. It will also likely lead to inconsistencies in your methods causing confusion for your students and stress for you.

When we understand our philosophy of education, we can move forward with confidence because we have looked it over and found it to be consistent with our worldview, research, and practice. When we trust our philosophy, we are much more likely to consistently apply it. This consistency helps our students understand the rules and routines, which better allows for them to focus on learning.

However, there is one aspect in particular that affects other teachers.

A Clear Discourse

Too often people simply talk past one another and in doing so they each win the argument but everybody ends up being the loser. To improve the discourse, clarify what you believe.

When we have thought out our underlying worldview, we will be able to articulate it in an understandable way. Once we have applied its implications to our teaching, we should also be able to explain our philosophy of education in an accessible manner.

When both parties have done this, there tends to be less talking past each other. Positions are made clear. More clarifying questions are asked. And, even if this only happens on one side, clarity is still gained.

One Sided Clarity

If one side relies upon fallacies or supports their philosophy with inconsistent logic, you still gain clarity by engaging them with your own philosophy. You now know where the other person stands. You have tested your approach against theirs and found theirs to be wanting. We must be humble when we are doing this though. If we lack humility we will only help them see our side as mean or whatever negative adjective they prefer to use.

In addition, we should be humble enough to see the grains of truth in approaches we consider to be wrong. We should use these grains to improve our own philosophy.

If your philosophy never changes you must think it is perfect. But why on Earth would that be a reasonable assumption?

Appropriated Worldviews, Appropriated Philosophies of Education

In part 1 of this series I explained that having a worldview is inevitable and that your worldview will profoundly shape your teaching practice. However, while having one is inevitable, we are not guaranteed to have one that is well thought out. In fact, the default is to fall into an unthoughtful fuzzy genericism that works well enough to get us through the day, but would fall apart if we ever cared to inspect it.

Our approach to education, or our educational philosophy is rooted in our broader worldview. So, before we can effectively work out our own teaching philosophy we must work out our worldview.

Appropriated Worldviews Make Poor Anchors

When we don’t analyze what we believe, we lack a sound worldview, we lack an anchor, so we must appropriate one. The place we appropriate a worldview tends to be from whatever subculture we most identify with; whether that’s democrat, republican, religious, environmentalist, etc. Worldview appropriation always causes problems. 

Problems arise because we don’t “own” an appropriated worldview, this means we are not anchored to the ground, we are anchored to some larger ship and we will move with it. This causes us to have a fuzzy worldview, because we are simply relying on a larger group for our ethics. This leads to a blind or semi-blind following of the culture. Our morality shifts this way as well (blindly shifting morality is bad). Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. 

We can skate by with an appropriated worldview (I think most people live like this) but those with an appropriated worldview will likely struggle to produce thought out, internally consistent answers to the following questions.

Does anything objectively matter? Why/why not?
What is the purpose in life?
How do you justify your own morality?
Is human flourishing good? Why/why not?
Is suffering bad? Why/why not?
Why is “cultural hot topic” a step in the right/wrong direction?

Appropriated Philosophies of Education 

When we don’t think about our philosophy of education, we appropriate one from whatever educational subculture we happen to lean towards. This causes similar problems as an appropriated worldview. Our views and educational approaches will shift with the educational culture around us. We won’t really control the changes because our philosophy will remain vague and fuzzy to us. 

Before you can purposefully change and improve your philosophy of education, you must work to remove aspects that are vague and fuzzy by bringing them into focus and defining them because it is nearly impossible to change a vague problem. Think about it. How do you fix something that is bothering you when you don’t know what that something is, but you know you are bothered? You have to figure out what is bothering you first!

Owning Your Philosophy of Education

Work out your worldview so you can own it and be anchored to something more stable than culture. Work out your philosophy of education so you can own it and be anchored to something more stable than an educational subculture.

Make it specific so you can make purposeful changes as you learn more. This process happens through a lot of reading, thinking, and talking.

Here are some questions to think about as you define your philosophy of education.

What is the primary purpose of education? Why?
How do humans learn?

How do you encourage creativity? Why?
What are your views on having children of all ages memorize information?
How should you reinforce rules?
What is the best way to manage disruptive behavior?
What types of punishments are acceptable? Why?
What role should educational research play into your approach as a teacher? Why?

Worldviews and Teachers

Just like we all have a worldview, as teachers, we all have a philosophy of education; it is unavoidable. So, my thoughts are, if having one is a logical necessity, we might as well try to have one that is well thought out, meaning that it is grounded in our worldview, research, and practice. 

Worldview

No one’s philosophy of education is fundamental, for our beliefs about education flow out of our beliefs about values. Our beliefs about values flow from beliefs or lack of beliefs in higher powers or purposes and then from our cultural context. These beliefs form the foundation of our worldview.

Merriam-Webster defines worldview as, “a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world, especially from a specific standpoint.”

Worldview Shapes Your Approach To Education

Many books have been written about how worldview affects education. If you are curious, just Google a worldview + philosophy of education. The traditional approaches to education can be classified as Idealist, Realist, Pragmatic, Existentialist, and Scholastic. For a more modern twist on how worldview shapes education, just take a glance at how many educators are advocating for other teachers to read and teach the principles taught in anti-racism or climate change books. The view that one should be an anti-racist or a “______” educator stems from something more foundational than one’s philosophy of education. These moral positions do not originate with your teaching philosophy, ultimately, they stem from your worldview. 

Worldview Shapes Your Pedagogy

Worldview does more than affect how you deal with cultural issues. It also plays a significant role in your teaching pedagogy. What does good classroom management look like? Is the ideal teacher more of a sage on the stage, a guide on the side, a bit of both? Is knowledge foundational, or are skills? What knowledge, what skills should be taught?

*Note: Your worldview and philosophy of education should be capable of explaining the “why.” If it cannot explain the why, why believe it?

Worldview Shapes Your Values

The reason worldview shapes your approach to education and pedagogy is that worldview shapes your values. That worldview affects values should be obvious to you, but what is often less obvious is that many seemingly neutral things are value laden. Knowledge can appear to be neutral, but knowing is moral. For a clear example, look at reading. Hopefully we all agree that it would be immoral to withhold the knowledge of how to read. The content and skills you choose to teach are not neutral because when we include something, we are by default excluding other things because of time limitations. These are value based and therefore moral decisions. We value what we include more than what we exclude.

Teaching Is Rooted In Morality

When we make these choices, we are making a decision based on our values, so it is a decision rooted in our morality.

The reason people are so passionate about politics is that politics are moral and have real effects. Education is the same. We must make decisions based on our morality and those decisions have real effects. Because of this, there is something about teaching that has intrinsic moral value. This is why debates within education can get so heated, just like political debates. Teachers are not simply disagreeing on methods. Teachers have moral disagreements on what qualifies as good. Even if the stated goals (critical thinkers, life-long learners, etc) are the same, the methods are incompatibly different. 

To have a well developed philosophy of education requires a thought out worldview. This implies having a thought out morality, knowing what you believe is good and why. So, before you work on your philosophy of education, you need to answer this question. Where is your morality rooted?

The Literary Canon: Who Makes the Cut?

A few days ago I got involved in a bit of a Twitter debate about the idea of a literary canon. Here’s the tweet that started it. (Matt is worth the follow!)

I found it interesting because, to me, the reality and importance of a canon is self evident. We have a set of books/writings that are considered to be classics and that ought to be taught.

What is the Canon?

Our word canon comes from the Greek word kanôn, which means measuring rod or standard. The term kanôn was initially used in Christianity to distinguish which scriptures were God-breathed and thus canon with those that were merely written by man and were therefore, apocryphal. Canon made its first, consistent foray into broader literature in 1768 when David Ruhnken used it to describe a selective list of writing (McDonald, 2007). And his use stuck. 

The literary canon is made up of works of literature that have been particularly influential and lasting. Generally there has been a region attached to the canon such as the Western Literary Canon or American Literary Canon. For our purposes, the modifier before canon is only signalling where the works became influential and lasting and is not particularly important. Different regions will have different, yet overlapping canons because while some works of literature will impact multiple regions, others have a more localized one.

What makes something “canon” is that it has been influential and lasting, not who wrote it or where it was written. This is how the Greek poet Homer made the list with his Iliad and Odyssey. And why The Brothers Karamazov by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky are included. They aren’t American or from the West, but their works greatly influenced American and Western thought and culture.

Entering the Canon

So, how does a piece of literature become canon? To enter the canon a work of literature not only must be influential and long lasting, it must also be continuously selected and reselected (Rabb, 1988).

However, beyond being “continuously selected and reselected”, the criteria for entering the canon remains vague, for better and for worse. For example, in a 1984 meeting by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies entitled, “Making and Rethinking the Canon caused quite a ruckus.

“The title of the seminar- provoked a striking lack of consensus about what kinds of topics or methods of inquiry would suit such a title. Questions about power and authority offered the only stable common ground. Other questions varied in focus and perspective. What are the principles by which the canon has been formed in the past and is re-formed in the present? How reliable are the processes by which works are included or excluded? Are we moving toward a narrowing or a broadening of the canon? How will questions of gender affect the eighteenth-century canon? What roles do exigencies of pedagogy and/or publishing play? How wide is the gap between adulation for a work and reading it? between respect or tradition and critical/ theoretical trends? What is the relationship between esteem for a work and its susceptibility to popular modes of analysis? What are the conceptual frameworks and categories by which we ascertain the “greatness” of literature? For scholars, critics, and teachers of the eighteenth century, these questions were, and continue to be, vexing” (Rabb, 1988).

Others have suggested that to become canon, or to be considered among the “great works” the literature generally must be something we can learn from, help us judge and shape personal and social values, move the reader to identify with the characters, define genres, push/expand genres, etc (Altieri, 1983).

So, entering the canon is complex. Not only do different people place different weights on different aspects, but some of them disagree on which aspects should be included in assessing the literature at all! I’d go further and say that the above is a non-exhaustive list of potential ways to determine canon. The fuzziness is frustrating, but there is no alternative. Any sort of ranking would produce a canon and suffer from its own shortcomings.

If you want to operationalize this, just apply the above “qualifications” to any literary criticism framework. They are not all equally valid, but most of them will get you to roughly the same place.

A good and relatively (not totally!) controversy free parallel to the literary canon would be the Hall of Fame for any sport, which is essentially a selective list of the greatest players. Let’s look at baseball. To enter baseball’s hall of fame, a player must receive at least 75% of the vote. That Babe Ruth or Mariano Rivera deserve their spot in the hall of fame is obvious. But the disagreements become clear if you look at who barely made the cut for example, Ryne Sandberg slipped in with 76.2%. Meaning that there were a relatively large percent of voters who thought he had a good, not outstanding career. 

Or, to court controversy, look at Pete Rose. His stats show that he deserves a place, but his gambling baseball games, including those he played in kept him out. Look at Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds today. Based on their play in the field alone, they warrant entrance into the hall of fame, but they are cheaters (steroids) and have thus far been kept out.

So while halls of fame (canons for sports) may have some specific rules like a minimum vote percentage, who gets selected is still subjective. Forming a canon is an inexact science with inexact boundaries. 

The Fuzzy Canon

Shakespeare obviously deserves to be included in the canon, anyone who doubts his place is as sane as one who doubts Michael Jordan’s place in the basketball hall of fame. The places near the peak of any canon are clear. But where does the canon start? Who makes the cut? Why?

Again, as entrance to the literary canon is not scientific, we cannot draw a line. To attempt to do so would result in the butchering of literary analysis. 

If you are seeking for some magic line, or formula to better understand the canon, you are seeking for fool’s gold and Atlantis. You will always be disappointed. The fact that the canon has fuzziness does not negate its reality any more than the fuzziness of tallness or shortness negates the reality of your height. The best we can do is follow general rules and to realize that the edges are fuzzy as a feature, not a bug. 

Altieri (1983) explains the fuzziness well when he says,

 “Clearly, canons are not natural facts and do not warrant the kinds of evidence we use in discussing matters of fact. We are not likely to find general laws governing our acts as canon-formers, nor is extended empirical inquiry likely to resolve any of the essential theoretical issues. Canons are based on both descriptive and normative claims; we cannot escape the problem of judging others’ value statements by our own values.”

Does Ryne Sandberg deserve his hall of fame slot? Does every book in the canon deserve its spot? What do we do when different groups produce differing canons? It’s fuzzy.

Criticisms of the Canon

Criticisms of the canon invariably center around around relevance or who gets in. And this is healthy. Because the canon is formed over time in a relatively idiocentric, organic process, there is no way to filter out the bigotry and oversights of the past. As a result, great minority writers have been excluded from the canon through no fault of their own. We can and should work to remedy this as we engage in the endless Canon Wars and “continuously select and reselect” the canon. 

The Purpose of a Canon

Even with all the disagreement surrounding what qualities a book should have in order to enter than canon. The concept is still eminently useful. A canon gives us a list of works that are considered to be the best of the best that has some sort of filter beyond “best selling”. This is helpful for individuals who want to read good literature, not just famous or popular works. 

While the canon is helpful for individuals, it is irreplaceable for educators. The primary limitation in education is that there is too little time and too many good books. We have to choose and canons are eminently helpful in this regard.

As far as how teachers should use the canon, I do not think there are any hard and fast rules. I would say that teachers should regularly but not exclusively teach from the canon.

The Alternative to a Canon

Maybe you dislike the canon because it is primarily old works written in and about cultures vastly different from the one our students inhabit. And in addition you think that too many minorities have been excluded by racism and bigotry. So you decide to get rid of the canon and do what’s best for your students.

Maybe you choose Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling for its themes of courage and friendship.
You choose the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseimi for its themes of betrayal/redemtion, family relationships, and political or cultural relevance.
And you choose Counting Descent by Clint Smith for how his poetry engages the minority experience and complicates our conception of lineage and tradition.
(Your reading list for your students includes many more works of literature but for our purposes three books is enough)

And your list starts becoming more popular. Other teachers begin to use it and add similar works to it. Its use grows and it is gradually taught in more and more schools. And you are happy because your list of recommended books is more inclusive than the old canon.

But, don’t you see what is happening? As your list gains popularity, it gains authority. More teachers reference your list while planning their curriculum, there is an occasional news article about a trendy new reading list. One of the articles calls it a new canon for a new age…

You see, there is no true alternative. The canon is a list of works considered to be the best of the best. If you would get rid of the canon, what would you replace it with? The replacement would simply be another list, a new canon.

If you think we should abandon the canon yet do not attempt to replace the canon, you would lead yourself and others adrift in a literary sea. We must assess books for quality. Determining (assessing) which are the best is a useful exercise. The result of this assessment will always lead to some sort of canon, even if you change the name to make yourself feel better.

So the only answer is to improve the canon. Which works should be considered in that aren’t? (probably many) Which books should be taken out? (probably a few)

Sources

Altieri, C. (1983). An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon. Critical Inquiry, 10(1), 37–60. doi: 10.1086/448236

McDonald, Lee Martin (2007). The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority (Updated and revised 3rd ed.). Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56563-925-6.

Rabb, M. A. (1988). Making and Rethinking the Canon: General Introduction and the Case of “Millenium Hall”. Modern Language Studies18(1), 3. doi: 10.2307/3194697

If I Were The King Of A School

🎶And if I were the king of a public primary school
Tell you what I’d do
I’d throw away the lies and the busywork and the poor pedagogy
And give sweet knowledge to you
Sing it now, joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me🎶

What follows might not always be possible due to staffing limitations. However, if I am going to pretend to be the king of a public primary school, I might as well pretend to be king of a good one.

If I were the king of a school, here is what I’d do…

First, I would name it Normal Elementary School for several reasons. The first and most important being that I am trying to set a “new” norm (teaching knowledge systemically). The second, it is a shout out to two things, historical teacher’s colleges and my hometown. Three, I like wordplay.

School Culture/Environment

At Normal Elementary School, our staff would also be knowledgeable of their students’ cultures and backgrounds. This will reduce misunderstandings and hopefully help create a schoolwide environment that is more tolerant of differences and deals wisely with disagreements (even ones that cannot be resolved). An added benefit of knowing student cultures and backgrounds is that it helps create a safe, welcoming environment.

Another way we will create a safe environment is to have a “warm/strict” discipline policy. Essentially, every student will both know the school rules and expectations and trust that they will be fairly enforced, while, at the same time students will know that they are deeply cared for and valued, i.e., the school discipline policy will involve teachers being warm and strict at the same time.

The combination of high academic expectations with high behavioral expectations is paramount. Over time, with careful crafting they can become somewhat self-reinforcing. Students can internalize expectations and I want their internalized expectations to be good ones.

All elementary students would have the following classes every single day from kindergarten through grade 5. If I were king of a middle school, students would have some choices, followed by still more options in high school. But let’s focus on elementary school, because it’s the most important!

The Classes

  • English Language
  • English Literature
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Art/Music
  • Foreign Language
  • Physical Education

Each class would be 45 minutes long followed by a 4 minute passing period. Lunch and recess would be 30 minutes each and would, of course, add a passing period to the schedule. So the total time my students would be in school is 360 minutes for classes, 40 minutes for ten passing periods, 30 minutes for lunch, and 30 minutes for recess. Giving us a grand total of 460 minutes or 7.7 hrs.

For those of you who may be concerned about how long students are in school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average American student spends 402 minutes in school or 6.7 hrs. So my students would be in school for 58 more minutes per day than average.

The Science of Learning

I would establish a school ethos that explicitly values knowledge. By choosing to explicitly value knowledge, we are not, and will not be dismissive of skills, critical thinking, or creativity in any way.
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that skills are built from knowledge.
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that knowledge makes critical thinking possible (p3 & p8).
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that knowledge unlocks creativity.

My staff would all have a pedagogy informed by cognitive science. In practice, this means we would integrate spaced practice and retrieval practice into everything we do while also combining them with other research-based teaching/learning strategies where appropriate. Our students’ learning would be research informed as well because we will explicitly teach and model effective study strategies and would encourage their application with various tools/assignments. I consider having sky-high expectations for all students to fit into this approach seamlessly.

This does not mean that I expect all students who walk into my school’s doors to be academic rockstars. It means that every teacher will expect consistent effort and progress from every pupil. Every teacher’s default approach will be to push and challenge students to learn more and grow their curiosity. This will be done with a kind and encouraging spirit.

The Curriculum

The curriculum itself would generally be delivered in a spiraling format, allowing students to revisit content over the years, building their schema. An example of this could be in 3rd grade, students are introduced to basic physics, in 6th grade students learn several common physics equations and apply them to varying contexts, and then in 9th grade students may take variables such as friction/air resistance into account when calculating their equations. Each time the students are exposed to a topic, they go deeper into the content, intentionally building upon what they previously learned.

As we go through this curriculum-building process we would determine what is Core vs Hinterland. The core content would be what we want students to know for forever and would be referenced throughout a student’s time at our school. The hinterland content is used to set up the core content with a grand narrative. This creates a story and makes all of the content more memorable.

An example of core content would be the three branches of government. The hinterland content could be the story of how a bill becomes a law. Another example of core content might be the Revolutionary War. Songs from the play Hamilton could be used as the hinterland in this case because it shows the relational and emotional dynamics leading to the Revolutionary War.

The overarching goal of developing our curriculum in this manner is to build student knowledge and skills in all subjects. We want our students to know lots of things and to be able to do lots of things. As knowledge is the limiting factor to both knowing and doing, we will emphasize it.

All of this leads to questions of primary concern.

What schemas do we want students to have? What specifically will we call core knowledge? What knowledge and whose knowledge will be taught?
I would seek to answer these questions in an open manner, to build trust with the community and to make open, healthy discussion and debate possible.

One goal of the discussion would be to communicate the importance of educating students of every ethnicity and socioeconomic background in such a way that they become culturally literate and therefore prepared for success in “mainstream” America.

Cultural literacy entails teaching knowledge that speakers and writers (think NPR, The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic, National Review, etc) assume their audience has such as, understanding the Bible and classic works of literature, America’s founding, along with basic math and science skills. In no way is this approach assuming that the mainstream, or empowered culture’s knowledge is better than other knowledge, but it acknowledges that access to opportunity is often limited, intentionally or otherwise, by the culture of the “elites.”
At Normal Elementary, we want to give our students access to the same opportunities the privileged few have, and are convinced that the best way to do this that we can control is by teaching students information that has been deemed culturally important. This is a norm we are trying to set.

For a further point of clarification, this does not mean my school would only teach students history/literature from mainstream or white culture. Doing so would be fundamentally wrong, even in a monocultural society. I do not have an exact ratio or plan on how to include the histories, literatures, or arts of other cultures beyond saying that we will do it in an intentional and meaningful way. This is a norm we are trying to set.

The world is too big, varied, and interesting; and time is much too limited to teach all that is worth teaching. So we will reach a compromise with the open, honest, good faith debates I wrote about above and make painful cuts and thoughtful inclusions in our curriculum. This likely means that our curriculum, particularly in history, literature, and the arts will change and shift over time, while having a relatively stable core. This is a good thing. This is a norm we are trying to set.

As far as our curriculum’s specificity goes, we would generally use the nominally “national” standards as our absolute basement. This would give us a decent framework to build around, as we seek to enrich and fill out those standards with specific content that fit our context.

Normal Elementary’s Norms

  1. Staff that are knowledgeable of their students’ cultures.
  2. Staff that have high behavioral and educational expectations for all and maintain this by concurrently being warm and strict.
  3. Staff know and apply the findings of cognitive science to their teaching.
  4. Students are explicitly taught effective study skills.
  5. A curriculum that builds on itself and expects students to remember what they have learned.
  6. A curriculum that helps ensure students can find success in “mainstream” America by becoming culturally literate.
  7. A curriculum that is culturally responsive to the school’s student body.

At Normal Elementary, these are the norms we are trying to set. These are norms every school should have, norms every child should have the privilege of being educated under.

If I were the king of a school that is what I’d do.

Pedagogy: Changing Minds Changing Lives

Education is rife with bad practices. The effects of these practices are clear and have devastating outcomes. We use Whole Language and Balanced Literacy to teach reading, avoiding the evidence and Synthetic Phonics. This leads to students who can’t read. We have similar problems with how we teach math, and similar outcomes. 

Unfortunately the consistently poor results of common educational practices have not pushed their promoters out of education or caused educators to take a serious look at research. What these poor practices have achieved is the complicating of thousands of lives, often along socioeconomic and racial lines. 

The sad truth is that consistently poor results have not been enough to create anything beyond a sincere yet generic belief that education is not perfect and does, in fact, have problems. 

Some individuals have done the soul-searching required to look at the evidence and change their practices, but the shame is that as an educational system we think the problem is outside, we think the problem is the others, and we leave our soul unexamined, our practices unchanged, our students condemned to a poor education.

This tragedy is happening because evidence alone is not enough to correct someone’s actions even if it can change their beliefs. Research from the article, Effective Messages In Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial in the journal Pediatrics found that correcting misconceptions does not necessarily lead to a change in actions.

“None of the interventions increased parental intent to vaccinate a future child. Refuting claims of an MMR/autism link successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable vaccine attitudes.”

vaccination.PNG

By itself, evidence can have strange effects. It can cause an intensification of views or over-corrections. Evidence can even be rejected outright because it conflicts with someone’s underlying beliefs (confirmation bias).

So what is a concerned teacher to do? It is obvious that we cannot just hang our heads and say, “Oh well.” The futures of too many children are at stake. The correlations between educational attainment and life outcomes are too clear for us to merely be concerned about our own classroom. In fact, caring about social justice demands us to work for change (See the disparities in the table above, or better yet peruse the 2019 Kids Count Data Book). Which brings us back to the original question, “If facts aren’t enough to change a teacher’s practice, what can we do? How can we change the practices of other teachers so that all students have a fair chance to learn?”

We cannot abandon facts. For facts help shape reality. However, reality is not created from mere facts. Reality is crafted from a concoction of facts and emotions. But this is particularly tricky. I am not comfortable engaging with contentious issues using emotion. It can devolve into mere anecdotes that tug on heartstrings. It can feel like I am flirting with some type of educational prosperity gospel, “Just do this, and your students will excel, be creative, lovely, and wonderful!” Playing on emotions is what cult leaders do.

And even so, emotions matter. We should use them to our advantage without manipulating others. 

We can do this by realizing that emotions are needed to make all decisions, even ones that seem to be just logical. 

A study by neuroscientists Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio R. Damasio in the journal Cerebral Cortex is summarized by ChangingMinds.org,

“Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who had received brain injuries that had had one specific effect: to damage that part of the brain where emotions are generated. In all other respects they seemed normal – they just lost the ability to feel emotions.

The interesting thing he found was that their ability to make decisions was seriously impaired. They could logically describe what they should be doing, in practice they found it very difficult to make decisions about where to live, what to eat, etc.”

So, if we want people to change their actions we need to involve emotions, even when the data is clear. So, how do we use emotions in a non-manipulative manner?

We need to first get some type of initial investment, and then sustain it. Which is obvious if you pause and think about it. Too bad actually achieving this is not so clear or straight-forward.

I think this can be done in a similar way we get our students to become invested in learning. When we are passionate about what we teach, we are passionate in such a way that it draws students into the content. However, when we talk about how to teach (or politics or religion), our passion tends to turn divisive.

I think there are ways to harness our passion to make evidence informed teaching attractive to doubters. We need to tell a (true) story and not just spit out some facts about good pedagogy. This is challenging. (I am trying to write this blogpost to clearly convey the facts while appealing to emotion. It is taking much longer than normal and I am not sure how effective I am, but I’m convinced it is worth trying.) 

When we turn good pedagogy into a story, we make our methods larger than a mere procedure. When we fail to personalize the issue, to make it a story we often come off as cold and calculating, as if we think educating a child is a matter of plugging in an equation. So, tell a story.

In the rest of this article I will use explicit instruction as my example because I think an easy to digest system of instruction with a proven track record that is based on cognitive science. For those interested, there is an absolutely excellent book about explicit instruction written by Anita Archer Ph.D and Charles Hughes Ph.D called Explicit Instruction: Effective And Efficient Teaching.

You: “I use explicit instruction because I want children to change the world with their creativity and ability to think critically. I use explicit instruction because I want students to have fun in school. I use explicit instruction because I want students to be both tolerant and understanding about other cultures/values.” 

This also plays on the “others’ needs and goals from step #2. Everyone wants these things. Now they are intrigued. 

Them: “Why does your approach to teaching produce those results? Does it really work better than what I have been doing?” 

Now we can move on to step number three, “offering proof that socially desirable other people are already invested”. Basically this is an appeal to authority. Be careful! Remember! Use emotions, don’t manipulate. Appeals to authority can be useful.

You: “Here is what Professor X has to say about explicit instruction. She is very concerned about making education authentic and applicable to students.”

Doing this well involves knowing who you are talking to. Show them that your side shares many of the same goals as their side.

Them: “Oh, that’s interesting. So how does explicit instruction work?”

Now, hit them with the steps! Make it simple. Make it easy. Remember they are new to this and may not have a schema for explicit instruction. Give them small, easily applicable steps. Just like what you would do when you introduce your students to a new topic.

You: “Well, it’s basically like “I do. We do. You do.” You just need to make sure to fully explain and model something before having students work on it in groups or individually. This helps students apply what they are learning to real-life.”

By adding the last sentence and linking explicit instruction with real-life application, you are helping make it easier for the person to buy in. You are making their initial investment more likely to become a sustained one because you are showing them that explicit instruction is aligned with their values (Step #1 of sustained investment).

Them: “Oh, that sounds easy. I already use “I do. We do. You do. But doesn’t explicit instructions involve a lot of lecturing?”

You: “It’s great that you already use that method. The lecturing within explicit instruction always involves a lot of student interaction. It is never just teacher talk. For example, you briefly explain something and then you pose a question and students can work together to solve it. Then you can explain things a bit further and pose an application question where students again talk and work together to come up with an answer. All while clarifying and answering student questions yourself. So there is a variety of T-S, S-T, and S-S interaction. Explicit instruction is actually quite dynamic and it even encourages students to come up with creative answers.”

Them: “That is interesting. And it is a bit different than what I do.”

Here is where you can get them to give something they value, step #5. They likely value creativity, engagement, and critical thinking. Here you can, depending on the context of your conversation either encourage them to try it out in their classroom and/or share an accessible blogpost about it.

You: “Why don’t you try it out in your classroom I think you would see your students come up with some really creative answers, especially if you have them apply the skills your teaching to real-life. I’d love to hear how it went.”

By linking explicit instruction with creativity and “real-life” you are making their initial investment more likely to become a sustained one (step #1). A call to action includes step #2 of sustained investment. You are involving them in a public manner (in front of their students and in a conversation with you). 

Hopefully this will segue right into step #3 of sustain involvement by creating evidence that explicit instruction is working. This evidence may involve more engaged students, higher achievement, changing student attitudes towards the subject, etc.

Then, the last step, #4 involves trying to cement the change and making it difficult to divest. For teachers, I think that the best way to do this is to point at the changes they saw when they began consistently using explicit instruction and to give more data (research summaries work great for this). 

Now, will following this procedure always work? Of course not. But we know that simply telling people about research doesn’t really help. So let’s start our conversations by leading with the story of good pedagogy, don’t just jump to the procedure or statistical outcomes.The story invites those outside our circle to come in. Then, when real interest has been aroused, talk with or message them. Remember that the research is so persuasive to us, in part because of our experiences. Share your experiences and encourage them to apply good pedagogy. If we want them to see the educational light, show them the easy access points. Show them where good pedagogy aligns with their morals and views. Remove the barriers to good pedagogy and you might just change some minds. It might just change some students’ lives.

Planning For The Upcoming School Year

I have big plans for the upcoming school year. Foremost among them is to improve my teaching so that my students can learn more. I plan on accomplishing this primarily by more thoroughly, more consistently applying the science of learning in my classroom. 

I will accomplish this by giving my students knowledge organizers (KO) at the beginning of each chapter. The purpose of this is for my students to have an outline with the relevant vocabulary, concept questions/answers, and important diagrams. I will explicitly teach my students how to self quiz with the KO by covering up the term, definition, or answer column with a piece of paper and then saying/writing the answer. For a good introduction and primer on KOs and how to use them, check out this blog from Durrington High School.

erosion and deposition KO

I am also going to  ask my school to pay for a subscription to Quizlet. The purpose behind paying for Quizlet is to get access to the data. My plan will be to use Quizlet in class about once per week for ~10-15minutes, and to require students to use Quizlet for homework once per week. 

The questions students will be answering with Quizlet will involve nearly everything I want them to learn. The content will range from simple vocabulary memorization to concept questions. To see how to quickly and easily make flashcard decks with Quizlet, click here.

Quizlet should improve student learning by giving instant feedback and tracking their answers over time. I can harness this data to directly benefit my students by having them look at their own data and teaching them how to interpret it and then to spend more time studying what they struggle with. 

The data is also where I get the benefits of subscribing. Quizlet will aggregate the data for me and I will be able to see which questions are easy for students and which are hard, and the assignments will be automatically graded. I will have access to all of this at the click of a button, with NO GRADING. So, the hope is that I will improve student learning, be able to give specific feedback to individuals/groups/classes, be able to dig deeper into the content because students will be retaining more due to the spaced repetition and retrieval practice Quizlet provides. AND I should be able to do all of this while reducing my workload!

I am planning on using one more tech based tool, Seneca Learning. In my 6th grade class I will use the KS3 Geography content because it fits perfectly with Earth Science. My plan for this is to provide students with time to go through the modules about every other week. When the content is relevant but we do not have class time, it will be assigned as homework (Most of the modules can be done in less than 10 minutes).

This will be helpful because, like Quizlet, I will get data on student time and performance without having to grade the student work myself, saving time. Seneca Learning also does a good job of providing numerous examples, diagrams, and applications that reinforce and extend what we are learning.

I will need to be careful of how I have students use tech. I think the above tools are helpful, provided students engage with them smartly. In order to encourage this, I will have a zero tolerance policy with tech. If students are on the wrong website/playing, then their iPad will be taken away in a series of escalating lengths.

I am also planning explicitly teaching my students 6 effective study strategies. I will primarily teach my students about retrieval practice, elaboration, and dual coding. I will tell them about spacing, but the spacing will be more passive for my students (it will be based on my planning) whereas the students will be active in retrieval practice, elaboration, and dual coding.

These strategies will help them reap the full benefits of their own study time and improve their use of various study tools (KOs, Quizlet, Seneca, etc). 

One study strategy that I am focusing on in a new way will be elaboration. The elaboration study strategy involves providing explanations of ideas/concepts and making connections between different topics and your life. To facilitate this I made the worksheet shown below. At first, we will do the worksheet together. Then as students become used to the format and process they will have more and more independence.

elaboration

The goal is to encourage my students to move from memorizing everything (This is a real problem in Taiwan) to seeing the relationships/distinctions between different vocabulary and concepts, which will help their memorization, understanding, and ability to apply what we are learning.

In order to help students make connections between what we are learning in the science classroom and the “real world” I am going to provide students with a handful of articles each month of which they will choose one to make connections with and summarize. They will also cite the article in a simplified format before moving to proper MLA format 2nd semester (Cross-curricular!).

Through all of this, I will give students regular low/no-stakes quizzes that require students to be able to know the vocabulary and concepts and apply them to different situations. The quizzes will generally take between 5-15 minutes of class time. This time includes checking their answers and clarifying misconceptions.

I am not implementing all of this from scratch. Doing all of this from ground zero would be impossible and lead to an exhausted teacher and less educated students. I am not implementing anything new, I am just tweaking how I use various tools with the goals of being more consistent and enabling my students to learn more.

To sum it up, I will

  1. Use Knowledge Organizers throughout my units
  2. Use Quizlet to help students learn both vocabulary and key concepts (retrieval and spaced practice)
  3. Use Seneca Learning to reinforce what my students are learning
  4. Teach and model effective study strategies (retrieval practice, elaboration, dual coding, etc)
  5. Encourage connections to the “real world” by requiring summaries of science articles
  6. Integrate low/no-stakes quizzing throughout all units

Becoming a Consistent Teacher: Stares, Hand Signals, and Routines

My school year wrapped up and I might be happier than my students. It isn’t that I dislike my job or am burned out. It’s just that having a break is wonderful.

When I compare the end of this year with the end of last year, it is a world of difference. Last year, I was exhausted, burned out, and looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of getting away from work). This year, I am happy, have energy, and am looking forward to summer break (for the purpose of enjoying the break). The primary reason for this change is personal growth.

The primary areas I have grown is consistency in classroom management and classroom routines.

  1. Classroom Management

Having consistent classroom management procedures drastically improved my teaching and reduced my stress. My “secret” is so simple, it is a little ridiculous. 

“3, 2, 1, Stop.”

I hold one hand in the air and countdown with my hand and voice. At ‘stop’ my hand forms a fist and my voice rises in pitch.

That’s it. The beauty lies in the simplicity. The ‘countdown’ cues students to quickly come to a stopping point in their work/discussions. The ‘stop’ cues them to stop. The rise in pitch is yet another cue. If many students do not respond, I pose a rhetorical question, “When I say 3, 2, 1, Stop. What should you do?” This is generally enough to get most students to stop. But for those who require more assistance, I have found it effective to move into their proximity while giving them a teacher stare. 

The Teacher Stare

The teacher stare is not angry, happy, or blank. It clearly communicates displeasure and should always be accompanied/followed with a signal that directs the students towards proper behavior.

A few seconds have passed and, in all likelihood, you now have the misbehaving students’ attention. Once they are looking at you, you can use a hand signal to guide the students into proper behavior.

Pro Tip: If there are multiple students misbehaving across the room, you should give each group the teacher stare, moving towards the worst violators. At the same time, use hand signals to cue behaving students sitting near those misbehaving to get their attention. This could involve signaling the behaving students (near the misbehaving ones) to tap the misbehaving students on the shoulder and point towards the teacher.

Hand Signals

Hand signals work because they are clear and simple. They also work well for students who struggle with English because these students will already understand the concept of the signal (be quiet/open you book/write/etc), even if they do not understand the accompanying words. The key to hand signals, is being consistent. You must teach the signals before you use them and then you must use them regularly to ensure students remember what the signals mean (Teaching and reinforcing hand signals is a very quick process). You should find that regularly using hand signals improves student behavior and reduces the amount of time you spend correcting students.

 

Quiet Open your book/notebook You should be working (move your hand like you are writing, accompany with a look to imply, “get to work”)
8547558-female-beautiful-closed-hands-isolated-on-white-background.jpg

Closed hands transition to open hands

Hands

The key to classroom management is being consistent and clear. Establishing simple routines and consistently applying/enforcing them is challenging at first because you are not used to it, and neither are your students. But it is worth it. You should persevere.

  1. Classroom Routines

The two types of classroom routines I have focused on building are procedural and transition routines. 

Procedural Routines

Procedural routines involve what students do once they have been given a task. It is easy to just have an inferred procedural routine, I gave “it” to you, so do “it”. But this is unnecessarily vague. Be intentional with your routines. Teach students how you want them to take notes. Organize your class to have the same overall structure each day. Have a few standardized formats for your worksheets. 

The purpose of this standardization in everything from lesson structure, notes, assignments is not for controlling students. The purpose of standardization is to allow for productive freedom. The standardization gives students the structure they need to be creative.

Transition Routines

Transition routines are imperative to build. But, if you observe an expert teacher they can seem to be naturally occurring. But they are not. Successful transitions are a result of careful planning and training. In order to grow in this area you must be intentional. Think about it, and try different setups and instructions in the classroom. Find one that works, and stick with it. 

What is the next step for students?

What do they need to bring?

Where do they need to go?

How should they go there?

What will students do when they get there?

Students will not naturally transition from one task or location to the next. Have a plan, train them. Praise them for their successes, even in something as small as a transition, because successful transitions are not small. A class that is full of successful transitions can easily save you 5 minutes each class. Those extra minutes add up very quickly.

I am certainly not done learning in these two areas, but the progress I made in classroom management and routines seems to have had an out sized impact on both my students’ learning and my quality of life. 

Teaching and Truth

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Finally, something that is not controversial. Students should learn the truth in school, as far as is possible. As far as is possible is the key phrase because not all subjects are concerned with truth per-say. English class would be the most obvious example. Students will read books of fiction and write opinion pieces. In history and science, moral dilemmas come up.

In these cases, the teacher’s role is to build their students knowledge of the world through the subject. You cannot prove Shakespeare’s work to be more true or accurate than Brontë’s. However, you can analyze the strategies each author uses, the genre of writing, along with the history and culture surrounding the author. When a moral dilemma comes up in history or science you can educate your students on the actors’ thought processes, the stakes, their level of knowledge, and worldview. You are also able to take advantage of hindsight (Even with hindsight, the right decisions are often not obvious).

This process of showing students the truth enables students to get the bigger picture and puts the content into a meaningful context. This gives students a more accurate view of the world and provides them with the fundamental tools of critical thinking: background knowledge and various procedures.

Every Learner is the Same

This is the third article in a series of 5 where I work to develop my philosophy of education. What follows should not be taken as gospel, yet, I believe it should be taken seriously.

A philosophy of education in 5 steps.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Everyone learns the same, roughly. This is controversial, like other aspects of my teaching philosophy. Yet, I believe it to be true, in a broad sense. No matter your views of education’s purpose, or how we measure it, learning is ultimately about knowing and doing. Educators differ over which is more important, yet few argue that only one is important.

Cognitive science has shown that, at a fundamental level learning is about the connections neurons make. When neurons fire in the same or similar patterns, learning is strengthened regardless of whether the idea generated by the firing neurons is actually true. For example, if a child practices 2+2=9, the more these neurons fire in that particular pattern, the more ingrained this learning will be.

As educators we can take advantage of this by using retrieval practice and spaced repetition. When students use retrieval practice, they are recalling the facts and or concepts, thus, strengthening that memory. When students use spaced repetition, we are taking advantage of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve as they recall the information again and again over time. Another effective strategy is to combine retrieval practice and spaced repetition with elaboration. Elaboration is when students make connections (identify relationships) between different facts and concepts.

The result is that the neurons responsible for the practiced knowledge/skill fire more and more in the same and similar patterns. And the memory gets strengthened.

As far as I am aware, what I wrote above is essentially a universal truth. I do not believe there are any exceptions to this rule. Different people may learn at different rates and have different limitations due to cognitive abilities/disabilities, background knowledge, and motivation, but the process of learning will be the same for all and all can benefit from instruction based on sound research.