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What to read in education? #cftrecommendations

December 8, 2016

The following pieces on education are worth reading or keeping on your to-do list.

Many Students ‘Stop Out’ of High School, Studies Show

Susan Sparks wrote a piece that looks at the number of students who may not ‘drop out’ of school, but who step away for a period of time, only to return later to finish their experience.  Of the students who entered high school in 2009, less than 3% were in school in 2012.  Three percent may seem like a small number, but out of roughly 15 million high school students, 3% is 450,000 who left school.  She writes, that a portion of those students do come back after time away.  That’s the good news.  However, the number of students still disenfranchised from school is considerable.  Where are they and what are they doing.

The other disturbing fact which Sparks points out is:

The federal study found that students in the poorest 20% of families nationwide were generally more likely than those from other income groups to both stop out or drop out.  They were more than twice as likely to stop school briefly, 12% versus 4.7% who left school permanently.

The fact that school does not engage and support a large number of students, nearly 500,000, suggests our society still has a significant challenge to solve.  A problem that will not be addressed through traditional schooling.  The encouraging news from the study Sparks references is that dropping out of school does not have to be the final word.

Georgia high school graduation rate for 2016 rises slightly

In Georgia, the graduation rate issue is improving slightly, but it still remains a challenge for our school systems.  In the AJC, Ty Tagami wrote:

Georgia’s high school graduation rate continued to climb in 2016 though the growth rate was slackening.  Nearly four out of five members of the class of 2016 graduated on time, according to preliminary data released by the Georgia Department of Education Tuesday.

While those are somewhat encouraging numbers, it still leaves 20% of students disenfranchised from school, left to find their way in an uncertain job market.

Globally Ready or Not?

Marc Tucker, President of the National Center on Education and the Economy ( and blog link), wrote a piece in Educational Leadership’s December 2016 issue, Globally Ready or Not?  He raises the question, are we preparing our students to be active and informed citizens in a globally-connected world?  If not, he provides the reasons why we need to be attentive to the question and what schools might consider doing.  He writes:

What has changed are the demands of the workplace.  Not only that, but performance of high school students elsewhere (beyond the U.S.) has rapidly improved; the typical high school student in more than 15 other industrialized countries now posts scores on international comparative tests that far exceed the performance of the typical U.S. high school student. (page 31)

While test scores are not the only measure we should use, they do tell us that in many respects our students are not keeping up.  There are other positive indicators regarding U.S. competitiveness.  For example, just behind Sweden, the U.S. ranks as the second most creative country in the world using the global creativity index (click here for the article in Business Insider).  So while collectively U.S. students may be struggling in math, science, and language arts as compared to their international peers, our society does promote and nurture an entrepreneurial and creative spirit.

Tucker poses a series of questions that he believes all schools should address.

  1. What it means to do the right thing when no one is looking?
  2. What deep learning is and how to produce and assess it?
  3. What it means to work independently against deadlines and meet them with high standards of quality?
  4. How to know when a student is a strong contributor as a team member?
  5. How the school will structure opportunities for leadership so all students get a chance to lead?

Addressing these questions may guide schools to build a strategy for helping students become globally ready for a constantly changing workforce.   He then suggests some interesting ideas for how we might design curriculum that helps students see the world in new ways.  For example, “divide the world into regions and require all students to take one full-year course introducing them to the achievements, aspirations, outlook, conflicts and sorrows of the people of that region (page 35).”  I love the idea of creating space for students to develop empathy with the “conflicts and sorrows” of the people of a region other than their own.

The Sandwich Strategy

Lynsey Gibbons, write an interesting article in JSD, Learning Forward’s journal, entitled, The Sandwich Strategy.  They make the case that teachers need to think seriously about analyzing student work in a collaborative setting.  Looking at the student work across a grade level in math provides powerful insights into math instruction.  Teachers learn from each other when they share how their students have mastered the learning targets, expressed themselves through their products, and achieved on their formative and summative assessments.  Examining the work collectively gives teachers insights into how their peers taught and evaluated learning.  It provides a way to benchmark.

Hopefully, you find these pieces relevant and interesting to your work.


Judy Willis on Brain Breaks, #neuroscience!

December 7, 2016

Judy Willis (@judywillis), author of a number of books on applying findings in neuroscience to support classroom and instructional design, wrote an interesting piece on Edutopia (@edutopia), Using Brain Breaks to Restore Students’ Focus.  Willis, a former physician, turned in her clinician’s lab coat for a position teaching science to Middle School students.  Leveraging her background in medicine, neuroscience, and science education she has written extensively on the impact that neuroscience can have on teaching and learning.  One of her books that I have read and used in my work is, Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom.

As she explains in her article, brain breaks are a strategy that allows students to re-energize.  She writes:

Brain breaks are planned learning activity shifts that mobilize different networks of the brain. These shifts allow those regions that are blocked by stress or high-intensity work to revitalize. Brain breaks, by switching activity to different brain networks, allow the resting pathways to restore their calm focus and foster optimal mood, attention, and memory. (click here)

In a typical 40-minute class, students will have on average a 15-20 minute attention span in the beginning of the class, where they are focused on learning.  Afterwards, they enter a period of downtime for on average, 10-15 minutes, before they regroup and focus on learning during the final 10 minutes.  This pattern has been called the primacy-recency effect or serial position effect (click here).   Willis suggests that at some point after an initial phase of focused learning teachers think about “commercial breaks” or “brain breaks” to allow students to refocus or restore their batteries.  During the downtime period teachers could think about designing learning activities that encourage students to apply their understanding, reflect on their learning, or engage in an activity directly tied to the new learning.  Downtime could also be used as a time to review and consolidate what the teacher expects know, understand or do.  In her article, she suggests other strategies that teachers can use during a break time.

Teachers who work with students in a block schedule have a slightly greater challenge when designing their classrooms.  They may need to incorporate a series of breaks throughout the 60, 70 or 90-minute block to maximize student learning.  From a design perspective the challenge is figuring out how to structure class time, as well as create meaningful and relevant activities connected to the new learning that inspire a “tired mind.”

Willis explains the neuroscience behind what brain breaks accomplish.

Brain breaks, by switching the type of mental activity, shift brain communication to networks with fresh supplies of neurotransmitters. This intermission allows the brain’s chemicals to replenish within the resting network. (click here)

Application of these neuroscience principles can certainly aid a teacher in making the classroom a more enjoyable experience for students.


Why we all need a #coach in our work?

November 15, 2016

Atul Gawande has written about the importance of adding a coach in his practice of surgery.  He speaks and writes about how the coach accelerated his learning in a number of dimensions of his practice, helping him to become a better surgeon.  Here is a short video clip that illustrates his rationale for why coaching was game-changing in his work.

His highly acclaimed New Yorker article, Personal Best, illustrates in more detail why he believes coaching is important for professional growth.

In education, there are two important educators who advance a coaching model for teachers, Jim Knight and Eleana Aguilar.  Each of them offers workshops, articles and books on the importance of coaching in improving teaching practice.

Do you have a coach?  It might be someone you call a mentor.  How does your coach or mentor help you think about your effectiveness in your role?  Do you ask for specific feedback and use it to reflect on your performance, making adjustments as needed?

When will real healing start in America?

November 12, 2016
It starts with each one of us!
Here is a blog entry from the Center for Courage and Renewal, an organization that was founded by Parker Palmer, and it devoted to creating space for an inner journey that leads to wholeness.  Their mission states:
Our mission is to create a more just, compassionate and healthy world by nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it. (excerpt from their mission)
Here is the message I received from them.

Dear Friends,

There are no quick fixes to invoke.

We need time to heal.

Time to come together.

Time to process the complexity of the moment.

We recognize the paradox of needing time and feeling urgency. Our wish for us all is both voice and agency.

For today, we just want you to know we’re thinking of you.

With love from the staff at the Center for Courage & Renewal
They included this quote from Parker Palmer and the Escher drawing.

The spiritual life is lived in a balance of paradoxes_ and the humility that enables us to hear the truth of others must stand in creative tension with the faith that empowers us to speak our own. - Parker J. Palmer

We now have to live with the paradox that a person was elected to be President of the United States who is not supported by 50% of the 120 million voters.  In addition, this 50% (which includes me) believe that Donald Trump is not the role model we want to represent our country.  We can turn to peacefully protesting his election to the highest office in the United States, which we have the right to do.  We can turn to violent protesting because we believe the system unjustly elected a man who is not qualified and our anger cannot be channeled any other way.  Finally, we can turn inward and search for ways that we can involve ourselves in the political process so our voices are heard.  In America, there are many ways to get involved in politics at a local, state, or national level.  I am going to invest my time in the third option because I believe that is where my voice can have the greatest impact.

When all is said and done, the American people (50% of us) elected Donald Trump to office, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton received  about 0.3% more popular vote…but not over 50%.  We have a responsibility to “hear the truth of others,” the 50% who invested their hope in Donald Trump and not Hillary Clinton.  Why?

Read another Center for Teaching post, Five Habits of the Heart: The Work of Parker Palmer.  This piece illustrates Parker Palmer’s call for a new and different investment to make democracy in America work  again.

A Team of 30 do the #unthinkable

November 8, 2016


I was fascinated by this story and the pictures that capture a process so complicated it is hard to imagine.  An operation so complicated it has only been tried 59 times in 64 years.  An operation so complicated that it requires a team of 30 medical personnel working closely with one another to do the unthinkable.  Doctors, nurses, and support staff put “their heads together” to separate the heads of conjoined twins, Jadon and Anias McDonald.  This CNN report captures the story of this family’s experience as they await the news about the success of the 27-hour surgical procedure.  While the boys are not out of danger, they are progressing quite well.  Bravo for teamwork!

While not a rare procedure, it certainly ranks as one of the most challenging operations to perform.  Most recently, another set of conjoined twins was separated in Saudi Arabia,

The twins, Rammah and Waddah, were successfully separated a week ago in an 11-hour surgery performed by a medical team led by Al-Rabeeah at the King Abdullah Specialty Children’s Hospital, King Abdul Aziz Medical City, Ministry of National Guard-Health Affairs in the capital. (click here for reference)

What is fascinating about these surgeries is their dependence on a team of personnel working together, much like a fine orchestra under the direction of a master conductor.

In schools, we need to be fully committed to helping our young people learn to work effectively on teams.  Educators have a responsibility to structure learning environments where students can solve developmentally appropriate, complex problems through which they learn to rely on one another, using the collective experience of the group to arrive at a worthy solution.  Working on collaborative teams is one of the 21st Century skills we need to design for as we build curricula.


November 2, 2016

The Woodcarver is an inspiring story of insight and wisdom.  I know no better storyteller of the Woodcarver than Parker Palmer.  See if you agree!

STEM Education in K-12 Schools: Where are we?

November 1, 2016

There were a series of articles in Education Week on the status of science education in America. While most of them focused on science education specifically, a number of them more broadly addressed issues in STEM education. Below is the list of Ed Week articles I am referencing, as well as their links (without a subscription to Ed Week you might only be able to read a summary).  

  1. STEM Education: A Permanent Crisis?, by Michael Marder
  2. Advice from the Science Classroom, by Justin Louie
  3. Ideas for Growing a Bigger, Better STEM Field, by Jen Gutierrez
  4. Good Science Teaching Requires Continuous Learning, by Kirsten Daehler
  5. Rural Science Teachers Need Specialized Training, by Jessica Waller and Lynn Bryan
  6. Focusing in on Science Learning, editorial

Each article focuses on a different aspect of the science and STEM education environment in America, but there are some common themes running through them.  In America, we have a crisis on our hands with regard to recruiting, educating, and retaining a viable, robust and dynamic STEM workforce, especially in K-12 education.  In addition, most STEM education is delivered through the perspective of the teacher sharing his or her knowledge rather than through the perspective of the student discovering and making meaning out of what they are asked to master.  It tends to be a delivery rather than an inquiry approach to teaching and learning.  While not exhaustive, here is a list of my takeaways from the articles.

  • We have a significant STEM teacher shortage in America (EnCorps, STEM Teacher Program).
  • Overall, the long-term progress report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress is not overly positive when it comes to students’ math and science achievement over time.  For 17 year old students, the average NAEP Math score in 1973 was 304, while in 2008 the average Math score was 306.  Over that time we have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in education.  (Click here)
  • A large percentage of STEM teachers in America do not hold a major or minor, or certification, in the field in which they teach.  In 2007, about 33 percent of public middle school science teachers either did not major in the subject in college and/or are not certified to teach it and 36 percent of public middle school math teachers in 2007 either did not major in the subject in college and/or are not certified to teach it.  (Click here)
  • A larger percentage of STEM majors in college do not want to teach for a variety of reasons.
  • Many businesses in need of the STEM workforce hire people from overseas because American schools and universities are not effectively educating our own students or enticing them into STEM professions.  In 1994, there were 6.2 U.S.-born workers for every foreign-born worker in science and engineering occupations. By 2006, the ratio was 3.1 to 1.  (Click here)
  • Businesses, universities, colleges and K-12 schools are not coordinated in their efforts to create high-quality educational programs that are meaningful and relevant to students.
  • Only 48% of 8th grade science teachers have a undergraduate major in science.
  • The voices of science educators in America are not necessarily at the table when policy decisions are made.
  • The “crisis,” in STEM fields and specially science, is linked to a “dearth of high-quality science education.”  “But it is also true that the public school system of the United States, the richest country in the world, still struggles to educate our citizens about science and to make that education relevant and present in their daily lives.” (Slate article, by Bella Boggs)
  • We lack a system-wide approach for educating, recruiting and supporting a STEM teacher workforce.
  • Next Generation Science Standards offer an innovative way to understand and approach teaching science in America, but most science teachers do not understand the standards nor do they understand how to design curricula aligned to the standards.  
  • Science teacher education programs need to focus on pedagogy and content expertise (most likely true for all STEM fields). While understanding content is not sufficient to being a good STEM educator, it is important that STEM educators have relatively deep content knowledge.
  • Partnerships between businesses, foundations, federal and state agencies, colleges, and K-12 schools need to be nurtured.
  • 40 States and the District of Columbia report shortages in science teachers in this past school year, and 2 out of every 5 high schools don’t offer physics because they cannot find qualified teachers. (Click here for a list of resources from American Institute on Research)
  • K-12 schools need to support all teachers, but how should their support for science (STEM) teachers to grow professionally be different, as a means to solidify retention. 17% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.
  • The culture of K-12 education in America tends to demonize teachers as part of the problem for why students do not learn. How do we elevate the teaching profession in America and embrace teachers as part of the solution and not as part of the problem?
  • Science (STEM fields) is a dynamic discipline. Science educators need to be continuous learners within their field of interest. How do we design and foster a culture of continuous learning?
  • Educational leaders must understand the ingredients or standards that comprise high-quality professional learning and support the design of programs aligned to these standards.

After reading these articles and looking at the data, it’s seems obvious that if we want to improve student learning in STEM disciplines we must disrupt the traditional approach to teaching and learning, both in K-12 and higher education.  We should consider adopting an approach or goal that ignites the natural curiosity that students bring to school.  In order to accomplish this goal, we should encourage students to explore ideas, engage with relevant and meaningful content, explain their understanding of the content in authentic ways, extend and apply their knowledge in new situations, and evaluate whether they have mastered the goals we set for them.  In this approach, students are more partners in the learning rather than merely passive recipients of the teacher’s defined, and sometimes limited knowledge.  The teacher, as content expert, is there to facilitate the learning, providing challenging questions and a learning framework for students to explore.  In this model, students are also partners in the strategies used to assess whether the learning goals are being mastered.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as well as standards in other STEM disciplines, offer us a pathway to rethink our approach to helping students deeply learn the content and skills unique to each discipline. In addition to rethinking our approach to teaching and learning in STEM disciplines, we have another challenge: rethink how we “build bridges” between the content and skills across disciplines so that students learn to think in complex and interconnected ways.  In his book, Innovator’s DNA, Jeff Dwyer and colleagues discuss the five skills they find in disruptive innovators.  The first four are: questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.  The fifth skill, associating, emerges out of the practice of the other four skills.  In associative thinking, a disruptive innovator is capable of seeing the connections between questions, problems or ideas from related or unrelated disciplines.  In K-12 STEM education, we help students learn to associatively think when we create transdisciplinary curricula (click here for a definition) that helps them to grapple with questions, problems or ideas that cut across the different disciplines.  In the case of science, it happens when we embed in our curricula the cross-cutting concepts outlined in the NGSS.

We need the courage and will to rethink how we teach STEM disciplines, moving from a teacher-centered, siloed approach to a student-centered, transdisciplinary approach. If we, STEM educators, start by adopting an inquiry mindset and tap into students’ natural curiosity we are likely to find our way out of these challenges into a new way of students experiencing STEM learning in schools.  In parallel with changes in K-12 education, we need higher education to accept the same challenges, equipping future STEM educators with an inquiry mindset.  This could happen if we apply the same principles for teaching STEM educators that we expect them to use in their future K-12 STEM classes.  Finally, strong partnerships between K-12 schools, colleges and local organizations provide opportunities for STEM educators to connect the student learning experience to meaningful and relevant problems that require the application of their knowledge and skills.

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