It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it

We’ve all heard this before, but when it comes to working with students especially, this age old mantra is quite true: It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.

I’m thinking about this in terms of classroom culture and management.  I’ve long argued that the best means of classroom management is to ensure a positive culture of mutual respect focused on learning.  Obviously, that is the sort of thing that is easier said than done, but when I think of the idea of HOW we say things, I consider the idea of a positive culture.

For example, the misuse of cell phones is a pervasive issue in my school-one that is constantly bandied back in forth in disciplinary meetings, etc.  The perennial question is how do we get kids to use them appropriately and responsibly.  Most of us know that banning them outright isn’t the answer, but we want students to put them away when they should be focused on our teaching or their classmates’ ideas.

In my experience, I have had classes in which I was constantly battling cell phone use and other classes with little to no issues.  What is making that difference?  In my, albeit not research based experience, simply the way I word the request makes a big difference.  When I tell kids “put your phones away,” I have far less compliance than when I say “thank you for putting your phones away.”  Am I making the same request?  Essentially, yes, but phrasing it in a polite and positive way leads to better results.  I’m currently teaching summer school, and there is not a single phone in sight.  All I said was “thank you for putting your phones away.”

Words matter.  Will framing your requests in a positive manner always yield the intended results?  Probably not–after all does anything always work?  but I’d say it’s a nice start to creating a positive culture.

Performance assessments

I just this week attended a workshop focused on performance assessments, which got me thinking about a lot of things.  (I added to my “to be blogged about list” a few times!)  But one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the way the pendulum swings in education.  Are performance assessments the next fad in education?  Is this a novelty that will die off?  I hope not; I think performance assessments can be powerful tools in our classrooms.  I just hope that teachers and schools implement them judiciously.

I’m all for balance in education.  I’d hate to see all other summative assessments thrown out in favor of performance assessments all the time.  I’ve said it before, but I truly believe that a traditional paper and pencil test holds some merit.  One of the many arguments in favor of performance assessments over tests is that in the “real world” students won’t be asked to take traditional tests.  Of course, so often the very people touting this idea are teachers-teachers who had to take a traditional multiple choice test in order to get their teaching license.  Irony at its finest.

In an attempt to articulate my thoughts on performance assessments, I offer a quick list of what I see as the benefits of performance assessments as well as a quick list of what concerns me.

1.  Performance assessments, when done correctly, require students to problem solve and think critically.  These are skills that are of utmost importance.

2. Performance assessments can give students the opportunity to engage in meaningful ways with the content.  Students should be able to connect their learning to the world around them.

3. Performance assessments allow students to work across curricula.  When students have to make connections among English, science, math, etc., they are able to make meaning of their learning.

4.  Performance assessments are more interesting for students.  When I ask students to recall some of their favorite lessons, their answers never include worksheets or tests.

5.  Performance assessments are more interesting for teachers, too.  Seeing students truly grapple with the course content in a meaningful and enjoyable way is far more inspiring for a educator than watching students get bored.  I fear we too often forget that teachers need to see the fruits of their labor in order to stay inspired to do great things.

And a few concerns:

1.  Performance assessments can make for fascinating learning activities.  This makes me worry that the activities will end up over riding the true goals of the assessment.  I hold very true to the UBD model.  I worry that teachers will concerns themselves too much with creating the activity and lose sight of the goal.

2.  Speaking of the goals, I worry that what is being truly assessed may get lost in the presentation.  One of the examples of a performance assessment that I read recently was a math based assessment in which the student had to do all sorts of math related things with the stock market and then make some sort of argumentative pitch with a interesting visual component.  There’s a lot going on there.  How is the teacher to truly measure the math related goals effectively and accurately?

3.  Every performance assessment I have seen has included some “real world” scenario.  (i.e pretend you are a journalist/movie director/art dealer/etc.)  These always bug me.  How is that authentic?  Our students aren’t movie directors, and realistically, most of them won’t become one.  How is that solving a real world problem?

Those are just a few thoughts that came across my mind as I was at the workshop. I do like the idea of performance assessments; I just hope we proceed cautiously

Some thoughts on discipline

It’s the end of the year, which means, unfortunately, it is senior prank season.  Of course, a number of students are making poor decisions and pulling pranks that cause damage and create potentially dangerous situations.  Of course this also means that the administration is tasked with disciplining these students with very few days left to carry out any consequences.  This has me thinking about student discipline in education.  With that being said, here are just a few bullet notes on the subject:

1.  Discipline is really about teaching.  Every time a student is in the office for a disciplinary infraction is an opportunity to teach the student appropriate behavior.

2.  If the student truly believes that the punishment is “worth it,” then the lesson probably hasn’t been learned.

3.  If the same student is guilty of the same infraction time and time again, then it’s time to reconsider your approach.

4.  Suspending students for skipping school is counterintuitive

5.  Student discipline is generally not black and white because no situation is completely black and white.  When the question is “What discipline is appropriate when a student does such and such,” the answer is always “that depends.”  There are always variables that need to be discussed.

6.  There must be an adult in any disciplinary interaction.  It’s not going to be the angry student, so make sure it’s you.

7.  Discipline is an opportunity to build a relationship with students.  Talking to them, hearing their side of the story, and approaching the situation as an opportunity to move forward will allow you to create a relationship with students, and those relationships can go a long way in preventing further infractions.

Is this a complete list?  Not even close.  Rather, I wanted to take a moment and get some ideas down.  Are some of the naive?  Maybe, but as guiding philosophies, we can work to change the way we look at discipline

Final Exams

It’s getting to be near the end of the year which means the season for final exams is fast approaching if it hasn’t already hit.  This means that all the arguments for getting rid of this tradition are being made.  A simple scroll through my twitter feed shows many examples of the call to rid schools of this arcane practice.  After all final exams are not true measures of a student’s learning, right?

But alas, this is where I often have issue with reformists.  We have a tendency in education to swing the pendulum from one side to the other rather than balancing in the middle.  Is the practice of giving final exams so heinous that we must throw them out completely?  I’d argue that there are numerous benefits to asking students to partake in a final assessment.  Instead of eschewing final exams totally, let’s consider how to make the practice better.

The argument that I hear most often revolves around the evils of a multiple choice test.  I think it is important to note that this argument rarely comes from teachers themselves.  I have worked with many teachers and seen many final exams, and in my experience most teachers make final exams that extend beyond multiple choice.  There may be a multiple choice section, but rarely do I ever see teachers use only multiple choice.  And you know what?  It is possible to write really good mulitple choice questions that engage students in deep thinking and are accurate assessments of students’ learning.  Instead of throwing them away, let’s have the conversation of how to write good multiple choice questions.

If the main concern is that final exams are not true measures of a student’s learning, then perhaps we should come up with better final assessments (that may still include a mulitple choice section).  For example in my public speaking class, their final is to give a speech.  They have no direction from me other than a broad question and a time limit.  What they choose to do after that is up to them.  They are forced to create something from nothing using whatever skills they have learned from the class that are applicable.  Asking them to complete this task as a final is a worthy measure of their progress.  I’d hate to see that taken away under the guise that finals aren’t accurate.

Teachers who give finals need to be having this conversation not just administrators and department heads.  Teachers need to be discussing whether or not their final is an accurate assessment and if not what can they do to improve it.  Throwing things away because they don’t work is not always the right answer; maybe we should repair instead.