Category Archives: Teachers Contribute to the Academic Success of their Students

Teaching Critical Thinking? These Mythbusters Activities Will Help.

This year, my professional learning team has decided to invest our time, energy and effort into studying the best ways to develop critical thinking skills in our students.

Not only is critical thinking an essential skill for any developing scientist, it is an essential skill for any responsible citizen in a day and age when everyday people are rigid in their thinking and ready to shout “FAKE NEWS” the minute that they are confronted with viewpoints that run contrary to their core beliefs.

Pascal Swier

One bit that has helped us to establish a clear definition of just what critical thinking looks like in action was this piece that we found on Edutopia’s website.  

In it, author Christina Gil offers six solid strategies for helping students to write better argumentative essays — a traditional form of teaching critical thinking in schools.  Our favorite suggestion:  Encouraging kids to be critical of their OWN ideas.

Gil writes:

It’s pretty easy to be critical of others’ thinking, and anyone who has asked students to critique a sample essay or paragraph written by a fellow student has witnessed that. But if students are to learn to be critical of their own ideas and assumptions, they need to be constantly searching for biases and flawed reasoning.

When they see this as part of the process, not a judgment that they are doing something wrong, they’ll learn to improve their ideas by examining them with a critical lens.

We dug that argument, believing that being a good critical thinker really IS dependent on a willingness to question one’s own core beliefs.  Stated more simply, “thinking critically” isn’t just about spotting the gaps in OTHER PEOPLE’s thinking.  It’s also about spotting the gaps in YOUR OWN thinking.

So we have decided to make what we are calling “gap thinking” a more regular part of our classroom instruction. 

Specifically, we are encouraging students to make predictions or take stands and then explicitly identify bits of information that they would need to know in order to confirm their predictions and/or positions.  Our goal is to help students recognize that gaps in thinking aren’t something to be afraid of.  They are something to be openly acknowledged and then addressed through deliberate attempts to gather more information.

This work is happening informally in darn near every classroom conversation. 

We ask kids to explain their initial thinking to a partner and then to follow that thinking up with the phrase “but I’m not sure because ___________.”  That simple phrase is a constant reminder to students that there ARE gaps in our thinking most of the time — and we can’t speak with complete confidence until we identify and address those gaps.

We are also doing this work formally by asking kids to make predictions and to identify gaps in their own thinking while watching Mythbusters episodes.

We show students the first several minutes of an episode — where Adam and Jamie explain the question that they are trying to answer and develop a theory that they plan to test.  At that point, we stop the video and ask students whether or not they think Adam and Jamie’s test will be successful or not.  Along with their prediction, students have to include gaps in their thinking that make it impossible to have the perfect prediction right out of the gate.

All of the thinking that students do with Mythbusters episodes are written down and turned in to teachers.  That provides us with samples that we can use to evaluate the progress that students are making towards becoming great gap thinkers.

Does this sound interesting to you?  If so, you might really dig seeing the handouts that we are using with our kids. 

Here are several connected to a Mythbusters episode on Archimedes’ Death Ray:

Mythbusters – Archimedes Death Ray – Gap Thinking Handout – This is the handout that our students complete while watching the Mythbusters episode.  It includes a spot to record both predictions and gaps in thinking.  It also includes sample sentence starters that we hope will help students develop the language of gap thinking.

Mythbusters – Archimedes Death Ray – Gap Thinking Exemplars – This handout includes the scoring criteria that we have developed for each level of gap thinking that we see in student responses.  It also includes several exemplars that we have developed to help teachers, parents and students to better understand what good gap thinking looks like in action.

Mythbusters – Archimedes Death Ray – High Low Comparison Task – This is an activity that we have developed to help students to practice spotting the characteristics of high quality gap thinking.  It is built on an activity that you can find in Creating a Culture of Feedback — a book that I wrote with my friend and colleague Paul Cancellieri.

Mythbusters – Archimedes Death Ray – Revise Once Revise Again – This is another activity that we have developed to help students practice spotting the characteristics of high quality gap thinking.  It also encourages students to revise their own gap thinking statements.

Our plan going forward is to integrate one Mythbusters gap thinking activity into each of the units in our required curriculum. 

That will give us five opportunities to formally teach and assess gap thinking ability over the course of a school year — which should give us plenty of information about whether or not our strategies are helping our students to become more comfortable with questioning their own thinking.  We also plan to start recording moments where we see students using the phrase “but I’m not sure because _________” organically in classroom conversations as another source of evidence of the impact that our practice is having on our students as learners.

So whaddya’ think of all of this? 

Is this an example of good teaching?  Is it an example of what good collaboration around practice should look like on professional learning teams?  Is it the kind of work that you are doing with your peers?

I’d LOVE to hear your feedback on our plans and on our materials — particularly if you use them in your own work with students.  I think they are going to do a great job structuring the process of critical thinking for my students, but I’m not sure because* they might not be approachable for every learner — or even for most of the learners in my sixth grade classroom.  A mistake that I often make as a teacher is developing materials that are more complicated than they need to be.

(*see what I did there?)

________________

Related Radical Reads:

What are YOU Doing to Help Students Spot Fake News Stories?

People are Definitely Dumber.

Session Materials:  Annual Conference on Grading and Assessment

 

The Inherent Evil Hidden in the Highest Test Scores.

Check this out:

MV 1
It’s a graph detailing my results on our state’s end of grade exam for science last year.

I crushed it, right?  Totally crushed it.

I mean seriously:  A 6.08 out of 7 — when average performance in the state is a zero and average performance in my district is just below a two IS pretty darn good, isn’t it?

I should be dancing in the streets.  I should be walking around with a puffed chest and a REALLY big head.  I should be offering the entire free world suggestions on how to be a better science teacher.

According to these scores, I AM “that good.”

But here’s the thing:  I personally think that super high test scores are incredibly dangerous.

Here’s why:

(1). Super high test scores breed complacency in teachers and schools:  While LOTS of kids were “successful” in my classroom last year, I know full well that there are kids that I struggle to serve.  I’m not great at working with students who have learning disabilities or who speak English as a second language.

My goal as an educator should be to improve my practice in those two areas.  But with test scores like mine, it’s easy to be complacent.  “Look at how much better I am than most teachers!” I’m tempted to think.  “How much better can I really be?”

#sheesh

(2). Super high test scores can cause teachers and schools to doubt struggling students:  According to my results, my instructional strategies are “working” for the vast majority of my students.  If I’m not careful, then, I might be tempted to place the blame for struggling on my students — instead of accepting responsibility for helping EVERY child to succeed.  Excuses like, “Clearly, my teaching’s not a problem.  Those kids failed because they ________________” are a heck of a lot easier to throw around when your numbers say that you are amazing.

In How Children Fail, John Holt argues that the best teams and teachers never make these kinds of excuses:  “If the students did not learn,” he writes, “the schools did not blame them, or their families, backgrounds, neighborhoods, attitudes, nervous systems, or whatever.  They did not alibi.  They took full responsibility for the results or non-results of their work.

It’s pretty darn easy to “alibi” when your numbers are amazing.  That’s equal parts sad and scary.

#doublesheesh

(3). Super high test scores can cause teachers and schools to overlook other meaningful definitions of “successful students”:  What’s really nuts about my test scores is that I don’t believe that they measure anything meaningful to begin with.  Our science exam is a 35 question, knowledge-driven multiple choice exam.  Know your vocabulary?  Memorize a ton of basic facts from the entire year?  Spend three weeks reviewing before the test day?

You are going to ace this thing.

But nothing about the test requires kids to act like practicing scientists.  They don’t have to learn to ask and answer interesting questions.  They don’t need to form a position about controversial topics based on interpreting data or examining evidence.  They don’t have to design an experiment to test a hypothesis or prove a theory.  There’s no critical thinking involved in earning high marks on a test that prioritizes nothing more than remembering stuff.

And that’s what’s so insidious about my “high marks.”  I’ve figured out how to best prepare students for a test that doesn’t prepare them for the world they will enter.  I’m the champion of the irrelevant.  And if I don’t keep those marks in the proper perspective, I’ll forget to examine just how well I’m doing at helping kids to master more meaningful outcomes that we all know matter, but that no one bothers to measure.

#triplesheesh

Is this making any sense? 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that unless you are honest about your strengths and weaknesses, willing to resist complacency, and ready to recognize that standardized tests rarely measure the outcomes that matter most, earning “high marks” can bring out the worst in teachers and schools.

__________________

Related Radical Reads:

If I’m .84 points from Statistical Perfection, Why am I So Darn Angry?

Meaningful Isn’t Always Measurable.

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

 

 

 

 

 

Need a Form for Analyzing CFA Data? Try This One.

One of the differences between teachers working in a traditional school and teachers working in a professional learning community is that teachers in a PLC engage in regular cycles of inquiry, investigating their practice together to identify and amplify instructional strategies that work for kids.

Fab Lentz

That “inquiry around practice” is centered around four basic questions that the teachers on teams answer together:  What do we want kids to know and be able to do?   How will we assess student progress towards mastering the skills we identify as essential?  What will we do for students who haven’t mastered the skills that we identified as essential?  And what will we do for students who are working beyond the skills that we identified as essential.

There’s nothing particularly intimidating about this work.  In fact, many teachers would argue that answering those four key questions has always been a part of what good teachers do.

But in order to have a long term impact on both student mastery and teacher practice, teams have to be deliberate about documenting what they are learning.

Without a long term record of the outcomes of each cycle of collaborative inquiry, lessons learned are simply lost over time.

To be deliberate, my learning team developed and then started using this form when analyzing common formative assessment results last year.  We dug it primarily because it forced us to move beyond simply making observations from the data sets that we were collecting.  It  also required us to define the next steps that we were going to take as a result of the observations that we were making together.

Here’s a sample of what a completed form looks like.

There’s a problem in our form, though.  Can you spot it?

While we are carefully documenting what WE are learning from the data sets that we collect, the form that we developed does nothing to encourage us to identify what individual STUDENTS are learning connected to the concepts that we are trying to teach.

That’s a problem, y’all.  If we are committed to the notion that every student should master the standards that we identified as essential, we MUST track progress by both student and standard.  Having a general idea of the patterns that we are spotting in our data sets can help us as individual teachers to improve our practice, but until we have specific lists detailing which students have mastered the essentials and which students are struggling to master the essentials, it is impossible to move forward in a systematic way.

So we’ve been tinkering with a revised form lately.  Check it out here.  

Did you see the chart we added onto the second page of the form?  It’s an adaptation of a form that we pulled from Common Formative Assessment — a fantastic book written by Chris Jakicic and Kim Bailey.

What we love about the new chart is that it forces us to sort our students into four different categories ranging from “This student hasn’t yet acquired the foundational skills/ideas necessary to master these concepts” to “This student has demonstrated that they are working beyond your grade level expectations and are in need of additional challenge.”

The reason that “sorting” of students is important is because each of those groups of students are in need of different levels of support/intervention.  While it is often easy for teams to name the students who haven’t mastered essential outcomes — most teachers can probably generate those lists before ever even giving an assessment — focused, timely intervention depends on understanding WHY a student hasn’t mastered essential outcomes yet.

Our new form forces us to think about that in advance.

Does this make any sense to you?  More importantly, does YOUR team need a new system for documenting what you are learning from the assessments that you are giving?

————————

Related Radical Reads:

Common Formative Assessment is About Improving INSTRUCTION.

Ten Tips for Writing Common Formative Assessments

 

 

 

Is Your Team “Flunking Unsuccessful Practices” Together?

Over the summer, I had the chance to hear Eric Twadell — the Superintendent of Stevenson High School District 125 in Illinois — deliver a keynote at a Solution Tree PLC Institute.

While his whole keynote was amazing, Eric shared a quote from a book called How Children Fail — which was written in 1964 by John Holt.  Holt’s goal was to study the characteristics of highly effective schools.

His main finding about exceptional schools is as relevant today as it was when first written over 50 years ago:

“The researchers then examined these schools to find what qualities they had in common.

Of the five they found, two struck me as crucial: 1) if the students did not learn, the schools did not blame them, or their families, backgrounds neighborhoods, attitudes, nervous systems, or whatever. They did not alibi. They took full responsibility for the results or non-results of their work.

2) When something they were doing in the class did not work, they stopped doing it, and tried to do something else. They flunked unsuccessful methods, not the children.”

Those are two really easy filters to evaluate the work that you are doing together, y’all. 

If you catch yourself coming up with alibis to explain away the struggles of your students, change is necessary.

And what change is the most important to embrace?  Start studying your practices in a systematic way.

Put evidence behind the impact that those practices are having on students — and then amplify those that work the best and give up on those that are doing little to move your kids forward.

The good news is that there’s nothing difficult about any of this.

Studying practices in service of student learning should already be a regular part of the way that you are doing business.

#trudatchat

___________________________

Related Radical Reads:

What Role Do Hunches Play in Professional Learning Communities?

Interventions are NOT Optional.

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy. 

 

Three Tips for Throwing a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party for Your Students.

I’m sure that by now, you’ve heard that on August 21st, a total solar eclipse will cut a path across all of North America for the first time in over 100 years, haven’t you?

That’s HUGE, y’all.

While eclipses — including total solar eclipses — aren’t all that uncommon, because the path of a total solar eclipse is so narrow, they are typically visible to less than one HALF of ONE percent of the earth’s surface.

What does that mean for educators?

If you have ANY students on your campus on August 21st, you’ve GOT to take some time to teach them a thing or two about eclipses.  And if you are ANYWHERE in the path of the eclipse, you’ve GOT to get your kids outside to see the eclipse as it happens.

Want some help pulling some plans together?  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

You’ve got to buy approved solar eclipse viewers NOW:  It won’t come as any surprise  that looking directly at the sun for any prolonged length of time can cause significant damage to your eyes — so if you plan to watch the eclipse at all, you need to buy solar eclipse glasses that are certified as safe for solar viewing.

There’s two hitches here.  First, there are tons of companies selling knockoff glasses that LOOK safe, but haven’t been certified as safe.  Second, companies making eclipse viewers are rapidly selling out, as most of America gets in on the excitement of a once in a lifetime event.

Viewers aren’t terrible expensive.  You can get them for somewhere between $1.50 and $3.00 a pair, depending on how many you plan to order.  But ONLY order them from companies that are reputable and certified.

You can find a list of reputable vendors here on the American Astronomical Society’s website.  And you can find a list of vendors who’s lenses have been certified as safe by NASA on their eclipse safety website.

Give kids chances to practice making scientific observations:  Solar eclipses are awesome opportunities for students to practice their scientific observational skills.  Not only will the moon slowly block parts of the sun from view, temperatures and amounts of light drop, shadows cast by objects become darker and more clearly defined, reflections of the eclipse can be seen in the shadows cast by light passing through the branches of trees, and the behaviors of animals — who are confused by the early onset of night time — change.

Consider asking students to make systematic observations of these changes throughout the observational period.  Being deliberate about observations, spotting changes over time, and keeping careful records of just what is being observed are core practices of successful scientists.

Here’s the observation sheet that I’ll be asking my students to fill out.

Don’t forget to incorporate some social studies instruction into your viewing party:  One of the lessons that I always like to teach to my students is that early civilizations were just as curious about the natural events happening in the world around them as we are — but they didn’t have access to the tools and technologies necessary to fully understand those events!  That led to some interesting explanations for natural events.

Take solar eclipses for an example:  People in India believed that a headless demon named Rahu was swallowing the sun during an eclipse — but because he was headless, the sun would fall right out of the back of his throat every time that he swallowed it!  Similarly, the Chinese believed that a Celestial dragon was swallowing the sun and the Norse believed that wolves were chasing and eating the sun during an eclipse.

Because all cultures knew about the importance of the sun, eclipses were a source of great fear for them — and in many places, residents would pour out into the streets to try to save the sun from attack by those mythical creatures.  They’d scream at the sky, bang pots and pans, shoot arrows and even fire cannons in an attempt to save the sun from attack.

Why not teach kids about that mythology?  Here’s a great National Geographic bit with some of the best myths from around the world.

And better yet, why not have your students develop their OWN chant designed to save the sun from attack on eclipse day?  Maybe consider modeling it after the haka chants used by the Maori people of New Zealand to scare away perceived enemies?  YouTube is full of great videos of the New Zealand rugby team dropping hakas on opponents before games.

And then, have your kids drop their own hakas during your eclipse viewing party.

How much fun would THAT be?!

They can learn a bit about mythology, understand the connections between mythology and early scientific understandings of natural events, and have a heck of a good time all at once shouting at the sky together!

Whatever you do, DON’T miss out on this once in a lifetime chance to experience one of our universe’s most remarkable events. Science is about observing the world — so get your kids outside and learn together. 

#truth