Common Core Skills: Deeper Reading and Critical Thinking


First automobile on the Index-Galena road -1911

Across the county teachers are looking for lessons and resources to implement new Common Core standards. While some see Common Core skills as something new, most of these skills are exemplified in the well established, document-based approach to instruction.

  • Close reading of non-fiction
  • Interpreting primary source documents
  • Comparing multiple texts
  • Finding evidence and using it to support arguments
  • Recognizing historical context and point of view
  • Utilizing higher-level thinking to analyze and form judgements

As a long-time advocate of DBQ’s, I’ve re-posted sample lessons that demonstrate how to build student skills in literacy and critical thinking, while supporting mastery of the Common Core.

Lessons that demonstrate how to think and behave like a historian

Elementary – Interpret Using Summaring Skills 
US Westward Expansion on the Frontier

In life, we purposefully craft summaries for a specific audience (directions for the out-of-towner, computer how-to for the technophobe). In school, the tacit audience for most summaries is the teacher. If students are going to learn to summarize they need to be given a chance to genuinely share what they think is important for an audience other than the teacher.

Here’s a three-step summarizing process I followed in a second grade classroom using a popular Currier and Ives print from the mid-19th century. We scaffold the lesson from “right-there” observations, to telling what they think is important, to framing a summary.

Middle School – Recognize Historic Point of View
European Views of the New World

This lesson improves content reading comprehension and critical thinking skills and examines European views of Native American and the New World in the Age of Exploration. While it is a rather one-sided account, the documents also reveal a great deal about the cultural “lenses” that the Europeans “looked though.”

I developed this lesson to assist high school history teachers working with struggling readers. I wanted to show them how they could scaffold learning so that all students could participate in doing the work of historians. I built the lesson around a theme which was central to their curriculum. It was designed as an essential question that would engage students in reflection about how they allowed prejudice to color their perceptions. I selected images which could be “decoded” by students with a minimum of background knowledge.

High School – Analyze and Make Judgements
The Impact of Industrialization

The Industrial Revolution transformed humanity’s age-old struggle with material scarcity by using capital, technology, resources, and management to expand the production of goods and services dramatically. But while new technologies improved the American standard of living, industrialization concentrated great wealth and power in the hands of a few captains of industry. As economic growth increasingly touched every aspect of American society, it created both new opportunities and new social problems.

Three DBQ’s are designed to improve content reading comprehension through the examination of a selection of primary and secondary documents, graphics, cartoons, tables, and graphs. Each is keyed to a historic theme and focused on an essential question of enduring relevance. They are designed to demonstrate how student engagement can be “powered” by an essential question.

Secondary - Interpreting Primary Source Documents and Comparing Multiple Texts
Why We Fight: WWII and the Art of Public Persuasion

Designed as multi-touch student text, it focuses on the American response to WWII – especially the very active role played by government in shaping American behavior and attitudes. “Why We Fight” gives students a chance to step back to the 1940s and experience the perspective of Americans responding to the Pearl Harbor attack and WWII. Americans were hungry for information, and Washington responded with a PR blitz to sell the war to the American public.

The iBook provides access to the digital content, so users can remix the historic documents into their own galleries and projects. Students can use an iPad-friendly historic document guide to analyze all the source material and share their observations with peers and teachers. “Why We Fight” is filled with “stop and think” prompts keyed to Common Core State Standards and includes a student guide to learning from historic documents and links to a teacher’s guide to related activities and free iPad apps.

Image Credit: First automobile on the Index-Galena road, 1911 (Washington State)
University of Washington Libraries

13 Subversive Questions for the Classroom

At the end of my recent keynote on the power of reflection at TechitU, I closed by saying something to the effect “… as a teacher you get to reinvent yourselves every year … if you want to change the status quo at school, know that everything is conspiring against you … testing, parent expectations, curriculum mandates, etc … so perhaps you’ll need to be a bit subversive.”

If state testing went away tomorrow, would we actually teach differently?

Since I made that “subversive” comment, I’ve been thinking about reflective questions that would challenge the status quo in school. My list was getting rather long, so I decided to split it into two posts. This post focuses on reflective questions for teachers to consider when thinking about their approach to instruction. Its companion post, 14 Provocative Questions for the Faculty poses disruptive questions for teachers and administrators thinking about reforming their school at the program level.

  1. If a question has a correct answer, is it worth asking?
  2. If something is “Googleable” why would we spend precious class time teaching it?
  3. When we ask students to summarize, do we actually want to know what’s important to them?
  4. What do you suppose students think they are supposed to be doing when we ask them to analyze?
  5. Do you ever ask your students questions you don’t know the answer to? Why not?
  6. Think about all those things we teach kids claiming “you’ll need to know this someday.” With the exception of teaching it, when’s the last time you needed to know any of that stuff?
  7. Do your students need more information, or skills in how to critically evaluate the information that surrounds them?
  8. How much of what’s really important in life, is taught in a classroom?
  9. Why do we usually teach all the boring facts first and save the interesting stuff for later?
  10. When we cover material, what is it that we think we have accomplished?
  11. Is being told something the same as learning it?
  12. What would content area teaching look like if it were taught the way an art teacher teaches art?
  13. If state testing went away tomorrow, would we actually teach differently?

Add your subversive questions in the comment section below!

“Subversive” inspired by “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. You should read it.

“13” is a cool number and people love reading blog posts that are enumerated lists.

Image credit: Banksy subversive street artist.

Illuminating the Beauty, Humanity, Intrigue in Mathematics

Illuminated Mathematics
Illuminated Mathematics Logo

I recently blogged from the 2011 US Innovative Education Forum (IEF) sponsored by Microsoft Partners in Learning. This is part of a series of IEF guest posts. For more, click my IEF tag. ~  Peter

More than 700 teachers, school leaders, education leaders, and government officials from more than 70 countries attended this year’s 2011 Partners in Learning Global Forum – an action-packed week of education workshops, inspiring networking events, awards, and announcements by Microsoft. Eighteen recipients of the Global Forum Educator Awards were announced at the event. This year’s winners were selected from more than 115 projects, narrowed from more than 200,000 applicants.

The winners in ”Knowledge Building and Critical Thinking” were High Tech High’s Margaret Noble and David Stahnke. “Illuminated Mathematics” is a curated multimedia exhibition produced by the 12th grade class of 2011. Students in Margaret Noble’s digital art class and David Stahnke’s math class were asked to find the beauty, humanity and intrigue behind math in history, philosophy and the applied arts. The goal was to promote math awareness through art, media and design. The event was hosted at the Sushi Performance and Visual Art Center on December 16th, 2010. Projects developed into an array of math abstractions and celebrations in the mediums of sound, video, animation, photography and interactive installation.

Illuminated Mathematics: Website | Project intro | Research Topics | Final Rubrics

Exhibition 2

~ A guest post written by Dave Stahnke ~ High Tech High Media Arts ~

“Everyone, open your books to chapter 7 section 2 as we will be learning how to factor degree 3 polynomials.”

I can imagine this statement being said, in some fashion, within the vast majority of high school math classrooms across our seemingly broken educational system. Almost all of us have at some point taught something that was completely irrelevant to the lives of our students. And we knew it!

Nobody has ever come up to me on the street and asked for help with factoring, or called me late at night, unable to sleep, because they were curious as to why the square root of two is an irrational number.

The fact is that nobody has ever come up to me on the street and asked for help with factoring, or called me late at night, unable to sleep, because they were curious as to why the square root of two is an irrational number. It is unfortunate that this doesn’t happen, but I would be kidding myself if I thought these were genuine student concerns within the realm of what we call “life.” I think it is time for us as teachers to be honest about what we teach, and to question why every student needs to know the entire breadth of standards associated with a particular subject.

Deep vs. Wide

There was a study published recently in Science Education (2009) that made a comparison between teachers who “sprinted” to cover all of the standards with teachers who slowed down and went deeper into the material. The students who “sprinted” ended up scoring higher on the standardized test due to covering more material. But the students who learned through the slower, in-depth approach earned higher grades in their college classes.

Like any great symphony, mathematics represents a pinnacle of human creativity. We teach math to enrich the lives of our students in a way akin to reading poetry or composing music

Is our goal to have students performing better on standardized tests or to be prepared for what they are going to encounter in college and life? The ideal would be that they would be prepared for both. So the questions become, what do we want to leave the students with? How are we going to prepare them for the real world? What do we want them to learn about themselves? And how do we do it? To clear the air, I don’t believe that students are taking my calculus class because they need help doubling a recipe or balancing their checkbook. I believe it is because we want to expose students to the poetry of numbers, to have a new outlook on how to solve problems, to be able to think outside of the box, and to see how the unbreakable human spirit has conquered problems that once mystified the greatest of thinkers. Like any great symphony, mathematics represents a pinnacle of human creativity. We teach math to enrich the lives of our students in a way akin to reading poetry or composing music.

Bringing Math to Life

This year I wanted to do something big that would change the perception of mathematics for my students and the surrounding community… It was time for math to become art and art to become math.

This year I wanted to do something big that would change the perception of mathematics for my students and the surrounding community. My goal was to create a math exhibition that would allow students to showcase their depth of understanding in a creative way. I wanted nothing to do with the poster-board type of science fair displays. I wanted math to come alive through the work of my students. It was time for math to become art and art to become math.

In order to pull this off it was clear that I was going to need help. After all, having the students for only an hour a day seemed to be great limitation to this type of creativity. I enlisted the help of Margret Noble, a sound artist, multi-media teacher, colleague, and friend. I also got help from as many math/physics friends as I could. I contacted about thirty people. Fifteen were willing to act as mentors, spending time meeting with one or more groups of students and/or corresponding through e-mail. All of the mentors were physics Ph.D. students, or had their PhD and were working in labs or as engineers. The students found the mentors to be a great resource. As one student said, “I got a lot of positive feedback from adults. They helped me understand a very complicated topic in a very simple way.”

Exhibition 1

Student Voice and Choice

Margaret and I envisioned mixing multimedia with mathematics by having students create video, sound, photography, and mixed media installations that explored math-related topics. We started the project by creating a list of 50 topics for the students to pick from, though they were not restricted to the list. Once the students had selected a topic we had them brainstorm possible creative ways of expressing it (i.e. their product). Each student also completed a research paper on their topic and gave a power point pre-production oral presentation to explain their topic to the rest of the class.

Along the way, students participated in four in-class critiques of their products, with opportunities to revise after each one. For each critique, students displayed their work on the large screen and the rest of the class would give kind, specific, and helpful feedback. These peer critiques were key to ensuring that students produced beautiful products. As they pushed each other’s creativity and offered new ideas, students’ projects evolved into a variety of forms:

A video with animated fractals, another on chaos theory, an artistic representation of tessellations, a flash video on relativity, music produced using Pythagorean scales, photography that displayed entropy, Pi and mental illness in mathematics, a beautiful silent film which used cryptography to crack a love letter, photography and video of the golden ratio, a video/sound installation on algorithmic compositions using Markov chains, a Leonardo da Vinci model airplane explaining the physics of flight, a comical rap on the life of Pythagoras, and many more.

A student who has struggled with math in the past noted that these peer critiques were instrumental in helping students reach their goals:

During the first two critiques I was a little scared because I didn’t think that our project was good enough and had thoughts in my head saying it could be better. But after the second critique I caught fire. I had many more ideas for our project and I was motivated to make it better. On our last critique a lot of good things were said about our project and it felt good knowing that we were that much closer to having a completed senior project.

Student choice also played a critical role. Contrary to what one might assume, having students choose their own topics to explore created some of the most rigorous and authentic student work I have ever seen. Not only did the students have choice in what they were learning, they also chose how they wanted to display it. Furthermore, as the project work progressed, I realized that once the students’ buy in was there, the usual achievement gap between students almost entirely disappeared. This same student found that this project gave him something to be proud of:

I honestly am proud of my project, because our animation came a long way from what we had in the beginning. A lot of hours were put in, learning Adobe After Effects, perfecting the animation, making the concept of infinite monkey theorem as simple as possible, and staying during lunch and after school so we could finish up and meet the deadlines.

Exhibition

exhibition 3

Students exhibited their final work on a Thursday evening at Sushi Contemporary Performance and Visual Arts, a gallery and performance space in downtown San Diego. The venue had professional lighting and ample wall space for multiple projections. It took us two days to set up the exhibition, hanging photos, placing installations, and installing projectors throughout the space. When the lights were turned down and the student work was illuminated it seemed almost magical. Prior to the exhibition, we had reached out to CNBC (video), Voice of San Diego, and City Beat Magazine to help promote the show. The most common phrase I heard that evening from the parents, media, and other visitors was “I can’t believe that high school students did this!”

As an educator, this experience proved to me that mathematics can not only be enjoyable for students, it can be downright memorable. This was possible through giving student choice and by letting them explore math through their own creative personalities. In the words of my teaching partner, Margaret Noble, “This project worked because math moved from the abstract realm into the tangible. Numbers and concepts became people, culture, history and philosophy that students could illuminate to the public.”

Or, as one student said, “It definitely widened my view of math. At first I thought math was only useful to scientists and mathematicians, but this project showed me that math is everywhere.” What more could a math teacher want?

Reference
Schwartz, M., Sadler, P., Sonnert, G. & Tai, R. (September, 2009). Depth versus breadth: How content coverage in high school science courses relates to later success in college science coursework. Science Education, 93, 5, 798-826.

Image credits: Margaret Noble and David Stahnke

Eight Look 4s When Observing a Classroom: What the Teacher Teaches – What the Students Learn

School desk I rarely quote at length from a blog or news article, but I think this time I’ll break my rule. I first met Mel Riddile a few years ago when we co-presented at a conference. Since then we stay in touch via Twitter and by following each others’ blogs. Mel blogs on policy and practice for NAASP at The Principal Difference and tweets at @PrincipalDiff

His recent blog post “Tests: Will they improve learning?” is a thoughtful response to the recent Science Journal study that concluded that “practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying.”

Mel does a good job of putting the research into the context of the classroom, but the segment I wanted to quote is his closing section –  ”Look 4s for School Leaders.” It’s a succinct guide for principals, instructional leaders and can be used as reflective prompts by teachers.  Put these in your toolkit and don’t forget they are all critical aspects to Common Core mastery.

(Note: They’re also a great companion to my post “Observing a Classroom? Watch the Students, Not the Teacher“) 

Look 4s for School Leaders

    • Closure and Learning – The focus of instruction is not what teacher teaches but what the students learn. The close of every lesson should focus on what the learner has learned not what the teacher has taught. The question is how does the teacher know that the students have learned and mastered the lesson unless there is some type of formative assessment–quiz, test, or activity.
    • Remembering – The only evidence of learning is remembering. When observing a lesson ask yourself how does the teacher know that students will remember what they just learned?
    • Checks for Understanding – Teachers should pause frequently during a lesson to check for understanding. How frequently? As a rule of thumb, teachers should check students understanding approximately every fifteen minutes, which approximates the attention span of the average adolescent. According to the Science study, one of the most effective checks for understanding is the quiz used as a formative assessment. Teachers can pause and ask students to write a summary or take a brief quiz on what they just learned. Immediately re-teaching a concept to a classmate may also be used to test practice retrieval.
    • Timing is critical - When it comes to recall, tomorrow is too late. Teachers need to check for student understanding before students leave the classroom each day.
    • Feedback – “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Unless students practice recall (retrieval) and get immediate feedback they will not remember.
    • Defined Instructional Practices – Some students absolutely need a highly structured classroom room environment characterized by identifiable instructional practices, smaller units of instruction, more frequent assessments, coupled with frequent and immediate feedback. However, students who can function equally as well in low or highly structured classrooms are not penalized in any way by the use of structure. In other words, when in doubt, use a more structured approach.
    • Formative Assessments – How often should students be assessed? How frequently students are assessed or asked to practice retrieval depends on their familiarity with the content and the student’s level of mastery. When students are introduced to new content or when they are struggling with a particular concept, they should be assessed more frequently. For example, the skills of proficient and advanced readers need only be assessed annually, while students reading at the basic level or below basic need to be assessed regularly. Frequent assessments mean more feedback. A quiz or summary essay at the close of a lesson will do more for student recall than extensive homework assignments.
    • Mapping – Instructional strategies like “concept mapping” are effective, but they work better if they are used as part of “practice retrieval.” The act of creating a “concept map” in and of itself does not improve learning unless the student makes use of the map as a part of the “practice retrieval” process. Teachers should show students how to use the concept maps to review for a test and not assume that the students know how to do so.

Image credit flickr/mecredis

Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students

Sputnik replica
Sputnik replica

The latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are public, and already some pundits are declaring it “a Sputnik wake-up.” Others shout back that international comparisons aren’t valid. Rather than wade into that debate, I’d rather look more closely at the questions in the PISA test and what student responses tell us about American education. You can put international comparisons aside for that analysis. 

Are American students able to analyze, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? [Think Common Core standards] Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life? Have schools been forced to sacrifice creative problem solving for “adequate yearly progress” on state tests? For more on that last question see my post “As NCLB Narrows the Curriculum, Creativity Declines.” 

PISA provides some answers to those questions and offers an insight into the type of problem solving that rarely turns up American state testing. FYI: PISA is an assessment (begun in 2000) that focuses on 15-year-olds’ capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. PISA assesses how well prepared students are for life beyond the classroom by focusing on the application of knowledge and skills to problems with a real-life context. For more examples of PISA questions and data click here. 

Do American students learn how to sequence or simply memorize sequences

Here’s one insight into what American students can (and cannot) do that can be gleaned from the 2003 PISA test results. We spend a lot of time in school getting students to learn sequential information – timelines, progressions, life cycle of a moth, steps for how to. Typically the teacher teaches the student the sequence and the student correctly identifies the sequence for teacher on the test. Thus we treat a sequence as a ordered collection of facts to be learned, not as a thinking process for students to use.  This memorization reduces the student’s “mastery” of the chronology to lower order thinking. I was guilty of this when I first started teaching history “Can someone give me two causes and three results of WWII?” 

Sample sequencing problem from PISA

The Hobson High School library has a simple system for lending books: for staff members the loan period is 28 days, and for students the loan period is 7 days. The following is a decision tree diagram showing this simple system:

Pisa-1

The Greenwood High School has a similar, but more complex library lending system:
All publications classified as “Reserved” have a loan period of 2 days.
For books (not including magazines) that are not on the reserved list, the loan period is 28 days for staff, and 14 days for students. For magazines that are not on the reserved list, the loan period is 7 days for everyone.
Persons with any overdue items are not allowed to borrow anything. 

Task

Develop a decision tree diagram for the Greenwood High School Library system so that an automated checking system can be designed to deal with book and magazine loans at the library.  Your checking system should be as efficient as possible (i.e. it should have the least number of checking steps). Note that each checking step should have only two outcomes and the outcomes should be labeled appropriately (e.g. “Yes” and “No”).

Student Results

Only 13.5% of US students were able correctly answered the question. Does it really matter if students in Shanghai did any better? (The student results were rated on a rubric scale.) 

When students are asked to observe a process and develop a sequence they have an opportunity to use a full spectrum of higher-order thinking skills – they must recognize patterns (analyze), determine causality (evaluate) and then decide how they would communicate what they’ve learned to others (create). Sequencing can be taught across the curriculum at a variety of grade levels – we simply have to ask the students to observe and do the thinking.

In case you’re wondering,  correct response should look like this.
Click image to enlarge.

pisa answer
pisa answer 
 

Image credit/ NASA
 

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