How To Make the Block Schedule Work

block schedule
block schedule

Transitioning to a longer class (block schedule) is not as simple as combining what was taught in a few shorter lessons plans and throwing in some homework time at the end of class. It requires looking at the key elements of a lesson and re-thinking how they can be leveraged in the context of more instructional time.

  • Content – what knowledge and skills will be studied?
  • Process – what material and procedures will be used?
  • Product – what will student produce to demonstrate their learning?
  • Evaluation – how will the learning be assessed?

Instead of the block becoming an insufferable 80 minutes of having to “entertain” students, it becomes a learning environment filled with more student exploration and reflection on their progress as learners.

I’ve helped many teachers see the block as an opportunity to create a more engaging student-centered classroom by giving students some measure of decision making in these four elements. Instead of the block becoming an insufferable 80 minutes of having to “entertain” students, it becomes a learning environment filled with more student exploration and reflection on their progress as learners.

Of course, you can’t simply “throw students in the deep end” and expect them to take responsibility for all their learning decisions. But with scaffolding and support, students can take increasing responsibility for their reading, writing and critical thinking.

In support of a training project I’m conducting this week, I’ve created a Google web that features handouts, resources, videos and web 2.0 links. It also serves as a model for how Google docs and webs can be used as learning tools in the classroom.

Image credit: flickr/dibytes

Don’t Teach Them Facts – Let Student Discover Patterns

4794114114_dd895561bf Develop a classification system – analyze patterns, create a schema, evaluate where specific elements belong. Sounds like a very sophisticated exercise. Not really, young toddlers do it all the time – sorting out their toys and household stuff into groups of their own design. They may not be able to explain their thinking, but hand them another item and watch them purposely place it into one of their groups. They have designed a system.

Humans experience the world in patterns, continually trying to answer the question – what is this? Remembering where we’ve encountered things before and assessing new items for their similarities and differences. Someone once asked Picasso if it was difficult to draw a face. His reply, “it’s difficult not to draw one.” We see “faces” everywhere.

Filling out a Venn diagram isn’t analysis – it’s information filing.

It’s unfortunate that student don’t get to use their innate perceptual skills more often in the classroom. Instead of discovering patterns on their own, students are “taught” to memorize patterns developed by someone else. Rather than do the messy work of having to figure out what’s going on and how to group what they see – students are saddled with graphic organizers which take all the thinking out of the exercise. Filling out a Venn diagram isn’t analysis – it’s information filing. Instead of being given a variety of math problems to solve that require different problem-solving strategies, students are taught a specific  process then given ten versions of the same problem to solve for homework. No pattern recognition required here – all they have to do is simply keep applying the same procedures to new data sets. Isn’t that what spreadsheets are for?

Continue reading “Don’t Teach Them Facts – Let Student Discover Patterns”

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:


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. 


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

Watch Problem Based Learning in Action: Apollo 13

This fall I’ve had the opportunity to lead many teachers on classroom walkthroughs in schools across the country. My approach is a “roving Socratic seminar” that uses brief glimpses of learning as a discussion starter for educators to reflect on their craft. For more on my walk through technique see my blog post  ”Teacher-Led Professional Development: Using Classroom Walk Throughs


One topic that always comes up on walkthroughs is something to the effect “… but don’t you have to teach the basics first,  before you can expect students to be able to think at higher levels?” There’s a persistent assumption that Bloom’s taxonomy is a one-way street. Analysis, evaluation and creation can only take place after a solid foundation of basics have been “installed” into the student’s knowledge base.

While our students have been conditioned to “learn the basics – then solve the problem,” that’s not how life always works. Most often we are confronted with problems that force us to go back and discover underlying foundational elements. Car won’t start… now what? 

Watch an infant getting into everything in the kitchen and you’ll realize that  kids are flexible learners, capable of moving fluidly between the basics and the problem. Every time our students play a new video game they confront a new environment with a unique set of interactions constrained by rules. Most often they have to discover how the game is played in a manner that mimics the scientific method – developing and testing hypothesis against their growing understanding of rules, functions, obstacles, rewards that underly the process of the game. Problem first, then basics.

When designing a lesson, teachers need remember that Bloom’s taxonomy is not a one-way street. It has multiple pathways and entry points – knowledge can be put into practice in a problem and a problem can be used to generate a body of knowledge. 

Need a good example of problem-based learning in action? Use this scene from “Apollo 13” as your walkthrough discussion starter. As you watch the clip think about the interaction of the problem and the basics.

  • Situation: An explosion forced the crew to shut down the command module and use the lunar module as a “lifeboat.” 
  • Problem: They needed to jury-rig a carbon dioxide filtering system for the lunar module.
  • Understanding the basics: What’s available aboard the space craft and how can it be used to modify the filtering system? 


Turn Your Students into Data-Driven Decision Makers

How is your educational technology being used? Teacher in front of the class lecturing on the smartboard? Or are students using ed tech to analyze, evaluate and create in ways that were not previouslypossible. I’ve written about one example, Wordle, a free Web 2.0 tool that enables students to interpret, qualify and visualizes text in new ways.

Another powerful data visualizer is the Motion Chart. It’s a dynamic flash-based chart that explores multiple indicators and visualizes growth over time. Gapminder World has assembled 600 data indicators in international economy, environment, health, technology and much more. They provide tools that students can use to study real-world issues and discover trends, correlations and solutions. Here’s Gapminders’s Hans Rosling showing how teachers and students can use the free Gapminder Desktop to develop there own motion charts using Gapminder data. 

To download a free version of Gapminder Desktop and access more educational resources go to Gapminder for Teachers. If you would like to build motion charts using your own data visit Google Gadget Motion Chart. (It’s the engine behind Gapminder.)  Motion Chart is a free gadget in Google Spreadsheet. In Motion Chart you can convert your data-series into a Gapminder-like graph and put it on your web-page or blog. All you need is a free Google-account. More info on Motion Chart 

New educational technology does not automatically improve the quality of instruction. We have all sat through dull PowerPoint presentations that were as “mind-numbing” as an overhead. Our return on technology investments may not be tracked in test scores that simply measure lower-order recall of information. A better metric would gauge if an educational technology gave students the tools to analyze, evaluate and create as professionals do. All skills demanded by the new Common Core standards.