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August 2015
Volume XII Issue VIII

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Conversation Starters

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

There is never a paucity of new ideas, new research, and new approaches to learning; there will always be something unfamiliar or different on the horizon. There will also be updated “spins” on age-old practices that may require a reexamination of how we do business. As professionals, we shouldn’t “bury our heads in the sand” or ignore new thinking because some time in the future the ideas being discussed may become a part of our lives and impact our day-to-day practice.

The questions below focus on issues being discussed, written about, or offered in workshops across the country. These questions may not have one clear answer and thus provide options for differing opinions. Teachers and administrators might select one question to discuss, debate the pros and cons, and thus, become more informed.

Conversation Starter #1

Should schools be placing more emphasis on promoting creativity and less emphasis on test preparation?
Sir Kenneth Robinson is the author of the book Creative Schools. He also delivered the most-watched Ted Talk in history (33 million views) and produced a popular video entitled “Changing Education Paradigms” (13 million views). In each of these presentations, he asserts that students are not receiving the kind of education they need to meet the demands of the 21st century or which leads to the “fulfillment of their natural interests.” He shares that the current public education model has “drained creativity from schools.” He believes that we should see education as a “human business” and that students should not be viewed as data points from a test schedule. He surmises that schools are filled with outstanding people but that they are working in an outdated model with roots in the Industrial Revolution. Although he does not disagree with standardized testing, he notes, “I think there’s a terrible tendency to confuse standardizing with raising standards.” In his writings, he shares numerous examples of schools that are breaking away from the current model and inserting innovative programs that tap into students’ interests and encouraging more creativity. What is your reaction to Sir Kenneth’s position? 

Conversation Starter #2

In light of the amount of time standardized tests take up in the school year, should mid-term and final exams be eliminated from the school’s schedule?
In response to the growing concern over the volume of student testing and the negative impact it is taking on classroom instruction, several school districts are discussing the elimination of mid-term and end-of-the-year final exams. Although the proposal has elicited mixed responses, proponents argue that the existing exam schedule can take up several weeks of the school’s valuable instructional time. Additionally, they point out that students are “test-weary” since they have already completed state-required standardized tests while a segment of the school population must also complete Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams. Currently, the districts are studying alternative learning experiences that better prepare students for life outside academia including project-based learning, simulations, portfolios, essays or labs. As one supporter has said, “It is not about reducing rigor. We need to up the ante in rigor, but we need to do it in a way that is more meaningful.” Are these schools districts on the right track in eliminating mid-term and final exams? 

Conversation Starter #3

Should schools/districts establish a policy regarding homework?
Homework is one of those educational practices that basically goes unchecked in many schools and districts. How homework is handled can differ from classroom to classroom. Teachers are left to their own devices to assign or not assign homework; the amount of homework can range from a single worksheet to a complicated, multi-step project. Some teachers do not grade homework while others count homework as part of a student’s final grade. Other teachers assign thought-provoking assignments while some assign word puzzles or copying spelling words. In short, practitioners are all over the map. Some schools are forming committees to examine homework practices as well as what the research tells us about homework in light of its impact on learning. Topics being addressed include how much to count homework, if at all, how to handle zeros, time limits on homework completion, and if homework teaches responsibility and time management. What are your thoughts about homework? 

Conversation Starter #4

Is experiencing failure the best way to learn?
In a recent Education Update article, University of Kentucky professor Thomas Guskey reviews some of the posts occurring in social media about failure. Advocates of failure have written, “Failure is success in progress,” “Failure is an initial attempt at learning,” and “Failure is the best way to learn.” Dr. Guskey eloquently makes the counter-case against failure. He views failure as the “ultimate level of nonsuccess.” He writes, “Failure implies not coming close. It’s missing the target by a mile. It’s not even in the game.” He believes that it is essential that we teach students personal responsibility by “offering students multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency on specific learning goals so that they don’t see learning success as a one-chance endeavor.” Richard Curwin, author, professor and expert in the field of motivation and classroom management, views the topic of failure this way: “A child is attempting to ride a bicycle, and the bike falls over. Another child, learning to walk, loses her balance and lands on her bottom.  A baby’s green peas slide off the spoon as he moves it toward his mouth. Good parents don’t say, “You fail, you’re not able to meet bicycling standards”, “I’ll develop a rubric for walking without failing,” or “We need a curriculum to help you keep your food in your spoon.”  They simply say, “Try again.” Thomas Edison agrees. He wrote, “I never failed. I just found 1,000 ways that didn’t work.” Should educators take a closer look at the concept of failure or simply “let the chips fall where they may?” 

Conversation Starter #5

Could it be that your instructional practices are being hampered by “terminal satisfaction?”
Some practitioners might call it a comfort level while others think of it as an insurmountable challenge. The terms may adequately describe the state of complacency that some educators experience. They wear so many hats as they carry out their infinite number of responsibilities that they do not give much thought to new ways to instruct their students. As they plan units and lessons, they return to the tried and true, rarely challenging themselves to test the classroom waters with fresh ideas. Some instructors experience the feeling that one teacher verbalized: “I wanted to feel like I was doing more than keeping a lid on things.” Another teacher shared her honest assessment saying, “I was just plain bored; I realized that if I was bored, what must the kids be feeling.” Should teachers self-assess their practices on a routine basis so as not to be satisfied with the status quo? 

Conversation Starter #6

Are our classroom-based assessment practices improving or inhibiting learning?
Authors and researchers Paul Black and Dylan William provide straightforward factors that either improve or inhibit learning. Black and Dylan’s seminal research findings have been held up as some of the most important work on the topic of assessment ever done. 

The five factors that promote learning are:

  • Providing students with effective feedback on their work
  • Actively involving students in the learning process
  • Using formative assessment results to adjust teaching
  • Recognizing the overwhelming influence assessment practices and results impact the motivation and self-esteem of students
  • Including opportunities for students to self assess their progress and understanding specifically how they can improve

Practices that Black and William found impede learning are:

  • A tendency for teachers to evaluate the amount of work and its presentation rather than the quality of the work
  • An emphasis on grading and not learning when teachers simply grade work rather than provide advice on how the student can improve
  • When teachers provide ineffective feedback that serves managerial or social purposes rather than provide ways students can learn more effectively
  • Teachers not taking the time to know as much as possible about individual students’ learning needs

As practitioners discuss the promoters and inhibitors, think of other practices from your personal experience that impact learning. At the conclusion of your conversation, make a list of the procedures that you should stop doing, keep doing or start doing.

Conversation Starter #7

Should schools examine their suspension practices more closely?
According to research completed at UCLA, students in the United States lost 18 million days of instruction to out-of-school punishments in the 2011-2012 school year. It is not surprising that when students are not in school, there are greater risks of academic failure, dropping out of school, and involvement in the juvenile justice system. Additionally, racial disparity is still pervasive with students of color being suspended at higher rates. In some locations, decision makers opt for suspensions in a “knee jerk” reaction to student misbehavior. Likewise, some schools have a one-size-fits-all practice instead of examining individual circumstances. Lastly, the zero-tolerance policy, which was instituted by many districts over 20 years ago, has not produced date supporting its effectiveness. 

The UCLA researchers “urged educators to examine their data for lessons about best practices, to put more resources into training teachers and school leaders to use school climate as an accountability measure.” UCLA Director of the Black Male Institute Dr. Tyrone Howard writes, “An additional approach that districts can take is to adopt more restorative-justice practices, wherein students are not quickly punished and expelled, but allowed to reflect on their behavior and respond to misconduct, with the goal of repairing harm done and restoring relationships among those affected. This more caring and just approach offers a humane response that can shrink the school-to-incarceration pipeline that has become increasingly commonplace in many cities and states.” Finally, UCLA Director of Civil Rights Remedies Daniel J. Losen has stated, “It’s not about letting bad behavior go unpunished. But instead it’s about putting in more support so the behavior does not exist in the first place.”

School divisions across the country are taking a closer look at how schools handle negative behavior. Does your school or division need to take a closer look at their discipline/suspension practices?

This issue of Just for the ASKing!  is all about ideas. A recent television commercial from General Electric was also about ideas. I encourage you to read the summary of it presented below, take a look at the commercial, and consider the message it presents.

Ideas are scary. They come into the world ugly and messy. Ideas are frightening because they threaten what we know. They are the natural born enemy of the way things are. Yes, ideas are scary…and messy…and fragile. But under proper care, they become something beautiful, truly imagination at work. View the commercial at www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfmQvc6tB1o.



Resources and References


Black, Paul and Dylan William. “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.” Access at https://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf

Guskey, Thomas. “Why Glorify Failure to Enhance Success?” Education Update. Posted June 2015. Access at www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education-update/jun15/vol57/num06/Why-Glorify-Failure-to-Enhance-Success¢.aspx

Kasun, Ross. “Busy Work or Home Learning.” School Leader. Access at www.njsba.org/news/school-leader/05062015/busy-work-or-home-learning.php

Losen, Daniel, Cheri Hodson, Michael Keith II, Katrina Morrison, and Shakti Belway. “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?” Posted February 23, 2015. Access at https://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-rights-remedies/school-to-prison-folder/federal-reports/are-we-closing-the-school-discipline-gap

Robinson, Ken. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Posted June 2006. Access at www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity/transcript?language=en

________________. “Changing Education Paradigms.” Posted October 2010. Access at www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms

Robinson, Ken and Lou Aronica. Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2015. Access information about this book at https://sirkenrobinson.com/creative-schools-the-grassroots-revolution-thats-transforming-education/


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Conversation Starters.” Just for the ASKing! August 2015. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2015 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.