Creating Doubt

May 18, 2014

One of my preservice teachers asked me what I would do when students are working in groups and one group seems to be “right on”. I told her, “I do everything I can to get them to doubt their thinking”.

She was understandably surprised by my response and I admit I was using a bit of hyperbole for effect. I wouldn’t do “everything” I could, but I would attempt to get them to doubt their thinking, even though they are “right”.

I don’t want my students to rely on my approval of everything they do. I want independent thinkers. I don’t want my students to limit their thinking to achieving “right” answers. I want creative and critical thinkers.

So, when I get a “right” answer, I ask students to continue to think, just like I do when I get a “wrong” answer. That must be why a former student made the following:


Student Participation

October 4, 2012

Today in my Ed Psych course I asked, “Why do we want students to participate in class?” The preservice teachers easily acknowledged that increased participation likely leads to increased mental engagement & having students hear ideas of other students has clear benefits concerning the language accessibility of the exchanges. I then asked, “What things can a teacher do to discourage/encourage participation?” While there are obvious answers, I think one of the more nuanced ideas related to valuing student ideas. When exploring this, we noted that teachers need to flexibly use student ideas, but doing so requires a very well developed pedagogical content knowledge. Leave a comment sharing how you encourage your students to participate in class discussion or other activities?

Technology Changes School, but how? (part 3)

January 19, 2012

The notion that technology uses us can be unsettling.  Yet, preservice teachers must be aware that technologies do make some decisions for them.  For example, if we expand our view of technology beyond modern electronics, the daily school schedule is an organizational technology to help us budget our time.  While the school schedule seems harmless, educators will likely recognize that it is the school schedule that decides how long they plan lessons or when instruction must cease for the day.  School bell schedule technologies, in making fundamental decisions for us, may cause educators to make decisions not in the best interest of student learning.  Importantly, this issue applies to more modern technologies as well.

Consider the experience of Guzman-Rodriguez (2007) who noted that students worked in isolation when a computer-based instructional model was first implemented.  Rather than working socially or collaboratively, the students worked individually.  In subsequent activities Guzman-Rodriguez (2007) purposefully included discussion questions to encourage students to share their thinking with other students.  If preservice teachers can consider the cues of a computer (one mouse, one screen, one keyboard), they might be able to more proactively plan to ensure collaborative learning environments in which technologies are being used.

More generally, technology values speed and efficiency – two ideas with disastrous implications for deep, applicable, and meaningful learning.  While we do not want learning experiences to be unnecessarily tedious, allowing technology to determine the goals of education, as it so often has, should be carefully guarded against.  By first accepting that technology has bias, and then working to identify these biases, educators make more informed decisions regarding educational technology and will not as easily fall prey to the whims of technological pressures.


This post is from a paper I recently presented at the Association for Science Teacher Educators. For the full paper and citations, click here.

Technology changes schools, but how? (part 2)

January 18, 2012

Technology has, and will continue to modify our beliefs and value systems.  Such changes will impact our actions.  While techno-enthusiasts talk about the possibilities of technology they miss the subtle hints technology gives about how the technology wants to be used.  That is, technological affordances are discussed at length, but technological cues are almost completely ignored.  Because technology can have such great effect on both beliefs and actions, educators ought to be wary of the subtle, but powerful hints, or cues, technology sends about how the technology wants to be implemented.  While imaginations run wild with the possibilities, or affordances of technology, few (not even designers in some cases) consider the cues technology contains.  For example, although textbooks can be used as a valuable tool in classrooms, the bolded words cue students (and teachers) to place emphasis on vocabulary acquisition over deep conceptual understanding.


This post is from a paper I recently presented at the Association for Science Teacher Educators. For the full paper and citations, click here.

Teachers’ Beliefs and Technology

January 15, 2012

Teachers’ beliefs have always played an important role in classrooms (Fang, 1996; Haney et al., 1996; Nespor, 1987). Chen (2006, p. v) confirms this trend related to educational technology implementation:

Teachers with more constructivist beliefs made efforts to allocate time for students to engage in problem- or project-based learning occasionally. Some of them used online discussion or presentation software to anchor and encourage discussion and interaction among teachers and students. Teachers who prioritized examination preparation mostly used technology to cover content, sometimes discarding technology when they considered technology not cost-effective or a distraction for student learning.

For example, when studying novice teachers’ use of technology in science classrooms, Irving (2009) found that the technology was more often in the hands of teachers rather than students. The study noted that teachers most often used tech to provide visual images and models related to content.  Rather then engage students in collaborative meaning making, the teachers used the technology in rather mundane and teacher-centric ways. Irving (2009) noted that new teachers may espouse student-centered approaches, but observations typically indicate teacher-centered enactment of teaching.  While the teachers are using technology, the actual classroom environment is not much different than traditional teaching.


This post is from a paper I recently presented at the Association for Science Teacher Educators. For the full paper and citations, click here.

Contextualizing Value-added

June 16, 2011

Implementation is everything.

I’m not philosophically against the notion that we ought to be expecting teachers to “add value” to students’ schooling experience.  However, when we use prescriptive tests to decide how much value is added, I take issue.  For example, in TN a restructuring of compensation is about to be implemented.  This system seems quite comprehensive and my first reaction was to think of Occam’s razor.  That is, this complex system seems to be just a new way to reward the same stuff.  Of course there are some differences – most notably the 35% of teacher’s rating from a value added measure based on Tennessee’s state exam.

So, the implicit message here is that certain things matter.  Those things are covered by a certain test.  Yet, schooling is so very much more than acquisition of certain content.  So, my beef is not with expecting teachers to add value, my beef is with expecting teachers to add certain value. When we prescribe these certain tests, my concern is that we prescribe a greater narrowing of the curriculum.  I am confident this country’s teachers can raise test scores, I’m just not sure we’re using tests on which improved test scores are desirable.

Enough complaining, how about a different idea?

When teaching middle school I often studied my students’ learning.  I gave students pretests (sometimes MC, sometimes essays, sometimes interviews, and sometimes concept maps) and then monitored student progress all the way until the end of the year (usually at least one mid-year assessment and then a final assessment)*.  The things I tracked throughout the year were academic/educational interests of mine.  Things I wanted to study how well students were learning.  The things I studied went far deeper than any standardized test I’ve seen or heard of.  Specifically, in the last two years of my k-12 teaching I studied how well students came to understand the nature of science and how students views of learning changed over time.  In both cases, my students made significant progress over the course of the year.  That is, I could reliably demonstrate added value for each of my students.  Yet, the value I could demonstrate having added is not the value for which the state would be looking.**

While I love to rage against the machine, I also like to “work the system”.  So, if value added measures are coming (and I suspect they are in my state), let’s put politicians’ money where their mouth is and actually treat teachers like professionals.  Let’s actually put power in teachers’ hands instead of just claiming to do so.

Here’s a very simple proposal***:

1) Teachers choose at least one of their goals for students to study each year. (i.e.: content understanding, communication skills, writing proficiency, critical thinking, problem-solving, attitude toward subject, or many others).  If a group of teachers wants to work collaboratively on a goal, great!

2) Professional development days are dedicated to teachers being able to research how they might promote their chosen goal, research how they might reliably assess the construct, and/or collaborate with peers to plan.

3) Teachers identify how they will track progress concerning their goal.  Ideally, tracking of progress is multi-dimensional.  Perhaps an instrument already exists in the education literature for pre/post testing, students might reflect periodically on the goal, or maybe the teacher will review classroom video to see what changes are, or are not, occurring.

4) Teachers will summarize results and perhaps present to colleagues, or at least to administrators.  I see “lessons learned” (what worked/didn’t work) being just as important as the actual improvement of students.  The 35% of “value added” could be tied to the success of the intervention or even just the completion of such a study (cause we learn a LOT from failure).

Will such a system be more work for teachers? yes.

Will such a system raise the awareness of many teachers? yes.

Will such a system stimulate school-wide improvement? yes.

Will such a system be more authentic and likely more interesting for teachers? yes.

Will such a system allow for context-based improvement of practice? yes.

Is such a system new? not really (see: action research or lesson study)

Will such a system be a better use of money? yes – we don’t need to be dumping tax-payers money into testing companies.

If we want to give teachers bonuses, learn from google and give them freedom in what they choose to study/create.  If we want to tie teacher compensation to value added, teachers ought to decide what is of most value in their context.

*Of course I assessed students much more often than this, these were just the more formal, long term assessments.

**I would challenge anyone to say improving a students view of learning is less important than learning the formula for density.  (d=m/v)

***I pretty much wrote this as I brainstorm.  I think there is something here, but it would obviously need some refinement.  The key here is giving teachers choice in how and what they improve.  Imagine if a teacher did a study like this every year for 30 years….wow!

Flipped: it’s Newton, but its’ not Einstein

June 15, 2011

I just got done with a webinar on the flipped classroom.  I appreciated the dialogue.  I am confident that the people in the webinar are each tremendous educators.  While I don’t see the flipped classroom as where instruction ought to be heading, I can appreciate the goal of the flippers to create time in their classes to do more exploration and inquiry.  Yet, my notion of the very best of teaching is that the inquiry and exploration generates content delivery rather than keeping content delivery prepackaged.  I even believe that deep down the founders of the “flipped model” believe this too.  Consider this quote from their website:

We have found that subjects where students have to follow a set of specific instructions is the best use of podcasts. balancing chemical equations, doing stoichiometric calculations. What we have also noted is that really tough conceptual topics like quantum mechanics and atomic theory have not worked as well. Next year we may just do these live in the class…

Stoichiometry doesn’t have to be understood as specific instructions.  It is likely better understood conceptually.  If we believe authentic learning is conceptual (as opposed to algorithmic), even the biggest flip promoters recognize that they “may just do these live in class…”.  Nothing can replace the idiosyncratic, dynamic and contextual exchange between teacher and student.  Nothing.  Moving the unidirectional dissemination of information (aka: lecture) to a different time slot doesn’t make it interactive.


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