Friday, January 17, 2014

To Help Students Learn, Appeal to What They Value

The following article was taken from Heidi A. Olinger's blog as posted on  The full citation is below the article.  Enjoy!

A Hunger for Recognition
Greg was among my toughest students in a tough year of teaching high school. Physically he attended class, but academically he was missing. He was a freshman invested in his image with older students he deemed cool, and academic achievement was not a group value. He was disruptive and disengaged. But Greg began to care about school the day that study hall rules changed and he could not leave the classroom -- not even to buy snacks. He quickly became hungry and morose, and, already the enemy, I was doubly so for enforcing the rule. Before me was a hungry boy, so I emptied my briefcase of every snack I had: a soft apple, a Power Bar, Dum Dums. I put these in a pile on his desk and said that was what I had.
His face smoothed in surprise. He sat up a little and opened a notebook. The next day he brightly offered to replace the bumper on the old truck I drove.
The start of Greg's visible respect for school was simultaneous with my visible respect for him as he wanted to be seen: wild, misunderstood and in need.
To know why it is important to understand what students value, I encourage everyone to reflect on how they feel -- and perform -- when a school leader knows and acts on what is important to team members.
Now think about when a leader ignores or disrespects team and individual values. How does it affect performance?
I have learned this: discovering and appealing to what students value has the power of a "return on investment" of their eagerly engaging in and owning their learning. And that is the pedagogical gold ring.

Getting Inside Their Heads

Following are practices for uncovering student values. Each may be used alone. However, they yield more accurate information when applied as a set throughout a school year or term.

1. Ask in Writing

This shows students, from day one, that you care who they are and what they value. I have asked the following of multiple groups, from fifth graders to college sophomores:
  1. Describe your last [science/math/English] class.
  2. What did you like best about the class?
  3. What made the best class you have ever taken the best?
  4. What made the worst class the worst?
  5. What do you do when you are not in school?
  6. What is important to you?
  7. What do you expect of me, the teacher?
  8. What would you like me to know about you that I haven't asked?
For questions 3 and 4, students have one answer. Can you guess what it is?
"The teacher."
Closely read students' answers on what made a teacher the best or worst, rendering a class the best or worst experience. Ever.

2. Have a Conversation with Each Student

A one-on-one conversation can have significant results -- it humanizes you, and it provides insight on where students are emotionally. Prepare only a few questions, with the goal of gaining in-depth answers. Here are examples:
  • How is class going for you?
  • What do you enjoy about class?
  • If you could change anything, what would it be?
Listen and record the responses. Remember, when you request feedback, be willing to hear the answer. Be a compassionate observer of what you see, as well as what you hear.
Scheduling the conversations before a project or exam gives students an opportunity to ask questions they might not otherwise pose.

3. Remember When

I design and teach STEAM curricula to appeal to girls, and the fourth and fifth graders with whom I am lucky to work can keenly demonstrate Newton's Third Law of Motion. They will tell you how to save yourself should you ever be free-floating in outer space.
They easily grasp this cornerstone of physics, a lesson many others do not encounter until senior year, because I frame the learning with three things important to most tween girls:
  1. Horses
  2. Clothes
  3. Their latest crush
Dealing with a Crush is vital to girls, as it was in the dark old 1970s of my preteen years. I obsessed about boys, so now, to help explain that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," I relate force to the effect of capturing a boy's interest by ignoring or walking away from him. His interest in a girl will be equal in force, I explain, to her deflecting his request to meet at a dance or lunch. "For every action" (the girl exerting force by walking away from the boy she likes) "there is an equal” (the boy likes her, too) “and opposite reaction" (he moves toward her to further the relationship). As with boy and girl, forces always come in pairs.
Frame your physics lesson in terms of how a girl can successfully handle her tween crush -- valuable when you are 11, 12 and 13 -- and the learning soars.
The nonacademic passions, social intrigues and fads we would dismiss are among the things students value and, ironically, are a springboard for learning. What are your ideas for uncovering and working with students' values? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

Heidi Olinger's blog can be found at
Olinger, H. (2014, January 15). Retrieved from

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Teaching's Holy Grail

When I left college almost 20 years ago and was searching for a teaching position, there was a set of interview questions that were fairly common across the school districts with which I interviewed. One of those questions asked if teaching was an art or a science. It was a good, thought-provoking question without a clear answer. One could make a strong argument on both the art and science side of the question. The answer 20 years later is much clearer; teaching is a science. I can hear the groans and counterpoints coming, and I will be the first to admit that our best teachers are fantastically artful in their presentation. I will also admit there is a fine line between good acting and good teaching; however, there is a bevy of current research, summarized in reader friendly publications, that clearly identifies the most impactful teacher-controlled variables in increasing academic achievement. We are in great error if we are not implementing these strategies with fidelity in our classrooms every hour of every day.

Let us start with Marzano, Pickering and Pollock’s jewel Classroom Instruction that Works, Research Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. This book is a meta-analysis that identifies the instructional strategies that have the highest probability of enhancing student achievement for all students in all subject areas at all grade levels. The nine most effective strategies are outlined below from most impactful to least.

Instructional Strategies
Identifying Similarities and Differences
Summarizing and Note Taking
Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
Homework and Practice
Nonlinguistic Representations
Cooperative Learning
Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
Generating and Testing Hypothesis
Questions, cues, and Advance Organizers

We know the instructional strategies listed above, when implemented with fidelity, have been scientifically proven to be some of the most impactful approaches to teaching and learning that we have at our disposal. It is of paramount importance that the strategies identified are implemented with fidelity, meaning they are used by teachers in ways that are consistent with the research done by Marzano, Pickering and Pollock. We are remiss if we simply see homework listed as an effective practice and assign the next chapter to be read for the next class or assign 25 of the odd problems in the book to be completed while at home. We are equally mistaken if we take a position that all homework is ineffective and our students will not complete it. We need to study the practice of assigning homework and understand what variables need to be implemented for this practice to be effective. If we do not assign homework or we do not assign homework properly, we are missing an opportunity to help our students grow. 

John Hatte’s book, Visible Learning – A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, reveals what Hatte calls “teaching’s holy grail.” The foundation of Visible Learning is built on research encompassing millions of students. It analyzes the largest ever collection of evidenced-based research and showcases the most impactful variables that improve learning. Noted below are four contributions from teachers that have shown to critically influence student achievement.

1.     Microteaching:  Mini lessons to small groups of students that are analyzed by colleagues (in person or videotaped). The analysis should include an intense reflective review of the lesson.

2.     Teacher-Student Relationships:  Students do not learn from people they do not like. It is as simple as that.

3.     Expectations:  It is widely understood that all teachers form expectations about student ability and skill. These expectations have a momentous effect on student achievement. For a better understanding review the Pygmalion Effect at

4.     Teacher Clarity:  The ability of the teacher to communicate to the student what the objective of the lesson is and what success will look like.

The two compilations of research explained are only a small sampling of available research that clearly articulates the most impactful variables that are within the control of the teacher to positively influence student achievement. How many of the strategies outlined do you as a teacher use every day? Are there strategies or approaches you use that are not listed? Are they effective? How do you know?

Curriculum resources, standards and technology (education hot buttons) do not increase academic achievement by themselves. Teachers engaged in disciplined research, making disciplined decisions and implementing disciplined practices will guide students and empower their futures through increased academic achievement. Let us become leaders in student growth and achievement together.