Day 1: Messy Labs and Learning

I am an elementary science teacher and I have decided to start a long term science lab with my 5th grade students where we created an aquaponics system. The goal is to give my students a concrete example that we will reference throughout the entire unit (1 month +) so that by the end, students will easily be able to explain how energy is transferred through an ecosystem and how organisms interact within one.

Getting 5th graders to set up an aquaponics system is no small task. It was messy.

I was limited to 6 small aquariums to split among 60 students. I decided that groups of 5 would be best, with each group responsible for ½ of the aquarium. Here is a picture of the finished aquaponics system.

While one group of 5 was prepping their half of the aquarium portion, the other was preparing the growbed for our chia and mung bean seeds.

Things were smooth to this point. But shortly afterwards, it devolved into chaos. The group prepping the growbed was supposed to read through the lesson in the textbook when they finished and then they would transition to preparing their half of the aquarium. However, only the conscientious students did this. Many good students and nearly all of my poorer students did next to no reading and decided to chat and play instead.

I believe the reason for this is twofold. One, the area each group should be working in was not clear. Two, I did not have students create a product with the reading. So many students likely felt that they could just do it later or not at all because they are not producing any work for me to grade.

Now, I believe that my students should do as they are told. They didn’t, and their poor behavior is on them. But at the same time, I am responsible for the structure and content of my lessons. The unclarity that helped lead to poor behavior is on me.

In the future, I will clearly demark the areas for each group. This will remove one uncertainty. Students will know where they should be. I will also make students produce some type of work. By forcing students to make a product, I am giving them a concrete goal, something tangible that can be measured. I will also be guiding my students via the assignment.

I believe that these two, relatively small tweaks to my lesson plan will have outsized outcomes. I will find out if this is true tomorrow, when half the class will make observations while the other half does some research. Today was messy, but groundwork for the lab and learning was laid. 

Teachers Should Read Research

Teachers should read research, on top of their teaching.
I know that teachers are always busy and the addition of reading academic research on top of the teaching/planning/grading load is unappealing. But hear me out. You will find that reading research saves your time, improves your teaching, and helps your students learn more. What’s not to like?

Through reading research on feedback, I found evidence that merely grading an assignment is not effective feedback. Now, I still must grade assignments, I am a teacher after all but I have been working on actually grading only summative type assignments. For formative assessments I have switched to completion based grading system with whole class feedback. When I apply this strategy, grading an entire class set of assignments takes 5-15 minutes depending on the type of assignment. And, better yet, my students are able to apply that feedback. I have more free-time and my students are learning more. It is great.

Through researching about cognitive science, I stumbled upon the Learning Scientists. From them I found out about spaced repetition and retrieval practice, among other strategies. I combined these findings with what I have learned about knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes.

Creating the knowledge organizers and flashcards was more work initially (Here is a how to blog I wrote on knowledge organizers and flashcards). But the payout for the effort has been tremendous. My students are using academic vocabulary to describe concepts instead of continuing to describe scientific concepts in everyday language.

For example:

Before After
When the convection current goes up it is because it weighs less when it is hot. It sinks when it is cold and heavier. A convection current rises because the heat lowers the mantle’s density. It sinks when the temperature is reduced and it becomes denser than the surrounding mantle.

Knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes are all great ways incorporate both spaced repetition and retrieval practice into your classroom. They are also a fantastically powerful tool to for vocabulary acquisition. Students with a better vocabulary will likely grasp the concepts you are teaching better and be able to more effectively think critically. This has opened new doors for my students as they can understand the concepts at a high level and now they have the vocabulary to not only answer questions properly (improving grades) but to ask much much better questions!

The Matthew effect is powerful. I try to teach my students as much as possible to leverage these effects for their benefit. It just so happens that I benefit too. 🙂

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.

Teaching While Introverted

The first few days back in school have been great. Well, mostly. My students have largely behaved and it has been great reconnecting with colleagues. But I am already drained.

I thrive on reading, adventure, and some talking. My summer had the first two in spades, and the latter was in my Goldilocks zone. Now that school has begun, it’s my talking and interacting that is in spades. The others are necessarily reduced. This is not a bad thing in and of itself because teaching involves talking and all work gives less time for reading and adventures than no work.

But I do need to adjust my out of work schedule in order to stay healthy. I am an introvert and I like the quiet. I am a teacher and I like teaching students. Both are true. If I ignore the first, the second suffers. I have also found that if I ignore the first, my relationships (in all spheres) suffer. This is because if I do not intentionally spend time alone I become tense and short tempered.

So, I will get my quiet time. Not just for me, but for my family, my friends, and my students.

I’ll take some time to write and blog for reflection and learning. I’ll take some time to relax and read. I’ll take some time to go on little excursions. That way I can give some (quality, mentally present) time to my family. That way I can give some quality (mentally present) time to my friends. That way I can give some (quality, mentally present) time to my students.

That’s what I do to breathe. What do you do?

A Poem: First Class First Lab First Day Of School

It was the first day of school and all went well

My students were spectacularly swell

I introduced me

And now they can see

I take science seriously

A lab on day one

Was twice as fun

When of behavior problems there were none

I am not entirely sure why

Did they have the first-day jitters

With their hearts all appitter?

Or were they just acting their best?

Whatever the reason

I’ll take advantage of this season

Behavioral precedence has been set

My expectations will be met

I’m looking forward to this year

Today was a good start

I’m grinning from ear to ear

Today was the first day of the year. And I started all my science classes with a lab. Now, this lab was quite simple. We simply reviewed the scientific method (They were taught it last year) and made a hypothesis about how a normal coin and an unevenly weighted coin will land. Then we performed the lab.

I taught this lesson three times today, and I have never had a lab that was so little work. It was incredible because every student was focused and working. I’m not sure if it was simply because today was the first day of school and the students were a bit nervous or because the lab was simple, but I will take it.

The secret might be to take advantage of first day nerves and students wanting to make a good impression. Not simply by laying down the law (should be done clearly, firmly, and kindly) but by taking advantage of their behavior. Allowing better than normal behavior to set a precedent and clarify expectations.

So, what are you waiting for? Start your year off with a bang! Do something and run with it.

Two Critical: Knowing is Critical for Critical Thinking

It amazes me how so many in education push creativity/critical thinking/skills so hard while often forgetting or ignoring the importance of content knowledge.

“Creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status”

Sir Ken Robinson, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Warwick (Source)

“Facts and figures once held as paramount in classrooms, and knowing facts and figures, is no longer relevant in today’s society”

Kris Willis, School Improvement Director of Canberra, Australia (Source)

Ken Robinson is a professor who became Ted Talk famous. Kris Willis is in charge of leading Australia’s education system. Both of these sources should know better.

It is confusing that people denigrate knowledge and memorization. We can see how important both are if we start with a basic skill, like going to the bathroom. Children who are being potty-trained struggle with this because it is new and they do not know how. They must first memorize many steps before they can apply the skill.

  1. Recognize that they need to go to the bathroom.
  2. Know where the bathroom is.
  3. Be able to open the door.
  4. Pull down their pants.
  5. Sit on the toilet.
  6. Let it out.
  7. Wipe
  8. Flush
  9. Wash hands with soap

And this list is a simplification itself. But I think that there is value in a small thought exercise like this. As adults, we often take this knowledge as self-explanatory, but every child needs to be explicitly taught how to use the bathroom. They do not discover how to do it. This interestingly titled article from Pull-Ups, Help Your Turtle Recognize The Urge To Go To The Bathroom helps show how much knowledge children need to have before they become potty trained.

We can step up the age and see that memorization holds its importance. If you are reading and understanding this, it is simply because you have memorized the alphabet, memorized basic grammar rules, and memorized the rules of phonics. You do not learn to read organically.

You learn to read from…

  1. Knowing how to speak
  2. Being read to
  3. Recognizing both upper and lowercase letters
  4. Memorizing the sounds of individual letters
  5. Know basic phonics
  6. Understand that letters make words
  7. Understand that each word has a specific meaning
  8. Know that books are written left to right and top to bottom

This list is also a simplification, yet it shows how necessary memorization is. If you do not memorize, you cannot read. For a more in-depth look at what it takes to read, check out this Reading Rockets article, How Most Children Learn to Read.

Now, the previous two examples are very simple. I think it is also important to check and see if it holds for advanced subjects. Consider the ability to think critically about complicated issues such as the relationships of countries.

This is an issue of paramount importance. Yet, in order to do it well, you need to know many things such as…

  1. The individual histories and cultures of each country.
  2. The history of interactions between each country.
  3. The current political climate of each country.
  4. External pressures on each country.
  5. Relevant international laws and agreements

There are at least two full university degrees of information included in the above list. Any attempt to apply critical thinking on this without deep subject knowledge will at best apply simplistic rules that lack the depth and nuance of reality. This is because when people think critically without deep background knowledge, they are looking at the subjects surface structure. Daniel Willingham succinctly describes this need for background knowledge in his AFT article Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? In this example, scientific thinking is analogous to critical thinking.

“The idea that scientific thinking must be taught hand in hand with scientific content is further supported by research on scientific problem solving; that is when students calculate an answer to a textbook-like problem, rather than design their own experiment. A meta-analysis 20 of 40 experiments investigating methods for teaching scientific problem-solving showed that effective approaches were those that focused on building complex, integrated knowledge bases as part of problem-solving, for example by including exercises like concept mapping. Ineffective approaches focused exclusively on the strategies to be used in problem-solving while ignoring the knowledge necessary for the solution. What do all these studies boil down to? First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically (to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice. For teachers, the situation is not hopeless, but no one should underestimate the difficulty of teaching students to think critically.”

(Emphasis is my own)

Dylan William mentions critical thinking in his paper, “How do we prepare students for a world we cannot imagine?

“The idea of “critical thinking” seems important in every single school subject. Indeed it is common to hear teachers discussing with apparent consensus what this means in different subjects. However, this apparent consensus is the result of a failure to explore in depth what critical thinking really means…. Knowing that dividing by zero invalidates an equation, and being aware of ways in which this can be done accidentally, is learned in mathematics classrooms, not in generic lessons on critical thinking. In the same way, knowing enough about the history of the period under study to read an account critically requires subject specific knowledge. Most importantly, developing a capability for critical thinking in history does not make one better at critical thinking in mathematics. For all the apparent similarities, critical thinking in history and critical thinking in mathematics are different, and are developed in different ways.”

Critical thinking is critically important. Educational leaders (and everyone) should promote and celebrate memorization (knowing things) as a way to increase critical thinking. Go on, think about it.

Battling Burnout: First Steps…

Summer is a wonderful necessity for teachers. It gives us time to recharge as teaching is often a mentally and emotionally draining job. I have found that there are several ways for me to refresh. Being out in nature is a great way to de-stress. It is away from people. As the wind runs through the leaves and the cicadas loudly announce my presence, my stress melts away. An added benefit of being in nature is its tiring, so I sleep better too.

Exercising my mind has also been helpful in my destressing from the school year. I have been reading free e-books on my kindle as well as college-level science books from I enjoy learning and this has also helped me to relax while still being productive. I have also begun to research teacher stress and burnout.

I have intentionally looked into this because I want to understand what I am going through. I am currently reading Carla Mckinley-Thomson’s Ph.D. dissertation, “Teacher Stress and Burnout and Principals’ Leadership Styles: A Relational Study.” This has been enlightening on numerous fronts. While I cannot change my work situation, reading about burnout has helped me to

  1. See that stress and burnout are particularly common among teachers
  2. Given me a framework and vocabulary to process my emotions around work

So, this far, I have found exercising my body and mind to be helpful in battling burnout. Another obvious help is to spend time with friends. Rebuilding and deepening relationships that suffered due to lack of time during the school year not only helps me to process the school year through conversations, but it also helps me to see that there is more to life than work.

Through this process, it has been necessary for me to be aware of how I am thinking. It is easy to get into a positive feedback loop of negativity. I have found it necessary to deliberately change my thoughts. “This policy is ridiculous and it wastes my time. It takes away from what I can do with my students.” A true thought. But, in the context of being burned out, an unhelpful one. It has been more helpful to think, “The policy is bad, but I can do X, Y, or Z to achieve admin’s desired outcome as fast as possible. Then I can spend most of my time teaching my students. I like my students.”

Thinking like this puts power back in my pocket. I am not shying from the truth of the bad policy by sticking my head in the sand but am reminding myself that I have the ability to choose, within certain limitations how to achieve what is required. The last part of the thought may sound cheesy, but I have found that it works for me. A true, purely positive statement reminds me that I do enjoy teaching.

Battling Burnout: Leadership Styles

Laissez-Faire Leadership

This form of leadership has been called passive or absent leadership by some. The hands-off approach by administration gives more decision making power to teachers because that power has been abdicated by administration. A study by Eeden, Cilliers, and Deventer in 2000 found that the laissez-faire leader, “leaves responsibility for the work to the followers and avoids setting goals and clarifying expectations, organizing priorities, becoming involved when important issues arise, taking a stand on issues and making decisions.”

A result is that teachers will self-regulate and make independent decisions. This, then often leads to low levels of achievement and increased levels of conflict within the organization because there is not a cohesive vision and therefore staff does not move forward with consistent directions or priorities. In the study I read, this style of leadership was found to have a Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient (PPMCC) of .36 in relation to teacher stress and burnout. Meaning that this leadership style increases the rate of burnout.

My thoughts are that this type of leadership is most harmful to new, and weak teachers. These teachers need more structure and support than teachers who are both experienced and effective. If you are a new or struggling teacher in this environment, find a community of educators that want to improve and join with them. This will likely either be among fellow employees who work hard to improve their craft in spite of the harmful environment this administration creates. The other place you are likely to find a good community is online. I have had good luck in joining the edutwitter community. Reading their posts and blogs have proven to be both emotionally encouraging and practically helpful. It has helped me to gain a direction in my teaching so that I am constantly working to improve, instead of staying complacent.

Transactional Leadership

Another name for this form of leadership is Contingent Reward Leadership. The leader will give feedback and advice from a recognition and rewards tradeoff perspective. These administrators evaluate, train, and correct their employees by using three behavioral approaches: contingent rewards and punishments, passive management by exception and active management by exception.

Transactional leadership can take on a clinical feel, and as such, its authority is based upon bureaucracy and the legitimacy of the organization (Emery & Barker, 2007). This can lead to unbalanced leadership when the leader uses either passive or active management by exception. Passive management by exception involves the leader overlooking various small infractions because the employee has reached a favored status for one reason or another. Whereas active management by exception involves the leader seeking for problems in the employees work to correct. In the study I read, this style of leadership was found to have a PPMCC of -.31 in relation to teacher stress and burnout. Meaning that this leadership style tends to reduce teacher stress and burnout.

My thoughts on this type of leadership are negative, to say the least (but according to the data I have seen, this can be a positive leadership style). I have found this approach to leadership to be a cold one that does not treat teachers as individuals. It treats them as cogs in a machine. The active/passive management by exception can, in practice, be based simply on whether or not administration likes you. When this is the case, a toxic work environment will follow. When a teacher who is liked by admin turns in decent work, they are fine. But when a teacher who is not liked by admin turns in the same quality of work, admin can find problems and make sure that every jot and tittle is corrected.

Transformational Leadership (Most Effective)

This is seen as the most effective leadership model. The transformational leader fosters an environment of trust and respect. As a result of the respectful and trusting environment, leaders and teachers are able to challenge and learn from each other, allowing both to improve. A transformational leader will be sensitive to the individual teacher’s needs and work to develop them into a future leader.

This type of leader motivates employees to be more efficient by effectively addressing goals, visions, and project/task outcomes in light of the “big” picture. In order to accomplish employee motivation, a transformational leader will draw from their charisma, inspiration, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Bass, 1998; Yukl, 1998). When done effectively, the admin’s passion and vision are adopted by the teacher. When admin and teachers share a common goal, communication becomes more straightforward.

All schools have goals and tasks for teachers to accomplish. A transformational administration will ensure that teachers are aware of the task/goal’s significance. They do not give out busywork or work where only admin knows the purpose. This admin will also provide strategies for teachers to efficiently and effectively accomplish the task/goal. In the study I read, this leadership style was found to have a PPMCC of -.59 in relation to teacher stress and burnout. Meaning that transformational leadership is associated with reduced levels of teacher stress and burnout.

My thoughts on this type of leadership are largely hypothetical because I have not encountered this. (To be clear, it is upper management. I have had some wonderful department heads though.) I can imagine that this type of work environment is one where teachers feel respected and safe, and as a result are free to focus on teaching and its related tasks.





Battling Burnout: The Problem is Manifold

It is nearing the end of my school year. I finish on June 29th and am barely hanging on. I am struggling to keep work stress at work and as a result, am often unable to relax or get a good night’s sleep. My stomach has been upset for days. I am burned out. This article and the ones to follow are my attempt to understand burnout.

I am going to try and deep deeper than I am burned out because of work stress. That’s obvious and unhelpful. What specific aspects of work are burning me out? Why? I have some inklings, but I want to figure out what I can control and how to hopefully avoid this in the future because grinning and bearing it is making me sick. I still love teaching, yet currently hate going to work. I want to understand this conundrum and be able to enjoy work again.

Burnout has been defined by Maslach and Jackson (1986) as a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism based on three aspects of middle administrators’ behavior: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment.”

For teachers, emotional exhaustion (EE) sets in when they feel emotionally overextended. EE can be caused by numerous aspects of a teacher’s job because emotion plays an integral role in a teacher’s job. Building relationships with difficult students, helping students with difficult home lives, dealing with parents/administration, and teaching lessons all carry an emotional load. When a teacher is consistently given an inadequate amount of time to process and recharge, EE will set in.

Teachers (and anyone else) who experience burnout will begin a process involving depersonalization at work. Depersonalization generally involves a loss of enjoyment, pessimism, and detachment. Loss of enjoyment will often start small and can simply feel like you are having a “bad day” but it becomes more persistent and can become the default. This can often lead to pessimism as the teacher feels there is little to no hope for improving the situation. Once this sets in, the teacher can begin to detach themselves from relationships at work, both with co-workers and students.

Burnt out teachers often perceive themselves as having low levels of personal accomplishment at work. Feelings of low accomplishment are often compounded by the symptoms of depersonalization. This can lead to irritability and lack of focus, which then affects the teacher’s ability to teach. Thus, lowering the actual level of accomplishment at work. Burnout can be a rather vicious cycle.

Teachers who are burnt out give students a lower quality of education and it can lead to absenteeism and higher turnover rates. More seriously still, burnout is associated with personal problems such as decreased health, increased use of drugs and alcohol, along with familial/marital strife.

The teaching profession is relatively infamous for its burnout rates. In America, about 8% of all teachers leave the profession after each year. From a teacher’s rookie year to their fifth year, approximately 40% of their colleagues who started with them will no longer be involved in teaching.

The problem is manifold. We must take meaningful steps to both understand and solve teacher burnout.