A precious gift

Published by Lori Pickert on March 12, 2010 at 01:39 PM

One of the most remarkable things about American classrooms is how little real teaching goes on there. Over the past five years or so, I have spent at least three or four days a month in schools studying the relationship between classroom practice and school organization. I observe classrooms at all levels — primary, middle, and secondary grades — and in all subjects. One of the most striking patterns to emerge is that teachers spend a great deal of classroom time getting ready to teach, reviewing and reteaching things that have already been taught, giving instructions to students, overseeing student seatwork, orchestrating administrative tasks, listening to announcements on the intercom, or presiding over dead air — and relatively little time actually teaching new content.

I am increasingly persuaded that the use of time in classrooms is a measure of the respect adults have for the role of learning in the lives of students. I have also become aware of how profoundly disrespectful schools, and the people who work in them, are of the time and effort they extract from the lives of students and their families, without regard to the value this time adds to students’ learning and development. The way schools use time is a product of many choices: the way the curriculum is designed, the way the school day is organized, the demands of testing on instructional time, the daily routines that teachers establish in their classrooms, and the attention, or lack thereof, to students’ classroom experiences by adults in schools. It would be an enormous step forward if adults in schools treated the time that children and their families give to schools as a precious gift rather than an entitlement. The most valuable resource that schools have is the largely unexploited capacity of students to engage in high-level learning. It is the responsibility of adults in schools to make the best possible use of this resource.

— Richard F. Elmore, Three Thousand Missing Hours, Harvard Education Letter

Go ahead and boo me. I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short. You’re competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week, 11, 12 months a year.

— Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, addressing middle- and high-school students in Denver

Sorry, couldn’t resist one more.

PreK drop-outs

Published by Lori Pickert on March 7, 2010 at 02:32 PM

Developing an enthusiasm for learning is especially important in the primary grades. Even students who have excelled in preK or kindergarten can find first or second grade so trying that they turn off to learning. Such disengagement has become so widespread that Sharon Ritchie, a senior scientist at FPG Child Development Institute, has worked with educators on a dropout-prevention project that focuses on children in preK through third grade.

You can walk into a classroom and see kids who by third grade are done with school,” she says. “They are angry and feel school is not a fair place or a place that sees them as the individual that they are.” Some of that disengagement, Ritchie says, is rooted in the way students in second or third grade are taught. She found that students in preK classes spent 136 minutes a day involved in hands-on projects. That dropped to 16 minutes by kindergarten and 12 minutes a day by second and third grade.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice in the Age of Testing, Harvard Education Letter

Go ahead and boo me. I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short. You’re competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week, 11, 12 months a year.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, addressing middle- and high-school students in Denver

How long do we need to make the school day to give children meaningful learning experiences?

What really changes our beliefs

Published by Lori Pickert on February 10, 2010 at 02:19 PM

I used to think that people’s beliefs determined their practices. And now I think that people’s practices determine their beliefs. As a child of the 1960s, I believed in the power of ideas to shape people’s behavior. I believed, for example, as many in my generation did, that the problems of failing schools originated in the failure of educators to “believe” that all children were capable of learning or — to choose a more contemporary framing of the issue — that changing teachers’ attitudes about what children can learn would result in changing their practices in ways that would increase student learning.

The accumulated evidence, I regret to say, does not support this view. People’s espoused beliefs — about race, and about how children learn, for example — are not very influential in determining how most people actually behave. The largest determinant of how people practice is how they have practiced in the past, and people demonstrate an amazingly resilient capacity to relabel their existing practices with whatever ideas are currently in vogue.

As practitioners, we are notoriously poor observers of our own practice and therefore not very good at judging the correspondence between our beliefs and our behavior. I know this about my own practice — as a teacher and as a consultant — which is why I rarely, if ever, practice solo any more. Resilient, powerful new beliefs — the kinds of beliefs that transform the way we think about how children are treated in schools, for example — are shaped by people engaging in behaviors or practices that are deeply unfamiliar to them and that test the outer limits of their knowledge, their confidence in themselves as practitioners, and their competencies. For example, presenting students with learning challenges that adults think are “too hard” for their students often reveals to the adults that the problem lies less in children’s abilities than it does in their own command of content and pedagogy. In many instances, our greatest successes in school improvement stem from scaffolding the adults’ content knowledge and pedagogy up to the level of what we know students can handle. In these cases, adult beliefs about what children can learn are changed by watching students do things that the adults didn’t believe that they — the students — could do.

You don’t really know what your espoused beliefs mean until you experience them in practice. The more powerful the beliefs, the more difficult and seemingly unfamiliar the practices. I now care much less about what people say they believe, and much more about what I observe them to be doing and their willingness to engage in practices that are deeply unfamiliar to them.

— Richard Elmore, I Used to Think … and Now I Think …, Harvard Education Letter, Jan/Feb 2010

How can we ask our children to push themselves as learners — to try new and difficult things, to critically reflect on their work and attitudes, to engage in work that challenges them intellectually and personally — if we aren’t willing to do the same?

See: Who Decides What You Can and Cannot Do?


Not that ironic

Published by Lori Pickert on February 9, 2010 at 03:18 PM

Why should we be working toward incorporating more real-life tasks, carefully structured group work and multidisciplinary projects in our classrooms? For one thing, the countries that are eating our lunch in those international tests use them — and their assessments reflect the higher-level thinking skills involved, too. And because well-done inquiry learning is centered on, reinforces and integrates the acquisition of useful knowledge. Ironically, many homeschoolers take their children out of public schools so they can adopt wholesale progressivism: long-term projects, lots of field trips, passionate pursuit of individual interests.

So why do some people insist — obstinately persevere in asserting — that project-based learning is fluff? That inquiry is an “ed school orthodoxy”? That discovery learning has nothing in common with a rich, planned curriculum?

— Nancy Flanagan, Fluff and Nonsense

Designed to raise children, not test scores

Published by Lori Pickert on February 7, 2010 at 02:36 PM

Our current educational approach — and the testing that is driving it — is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike.

In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on.

What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run. Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.

Along the way, teachers should spend time each day having sustained conversations with small groups of children. Such conversations give children a chance to support their views with evidence, change their minds and use questions as a way to learn more.

Our success depends on embracing a curriculum focused on essential skills like reading, writing, computation, pattern detection, conversation and collaboration — a curriculum designed to raise children, rather than test scores.

— Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams College, New York Times Op-Ed column Playing to Learn

Goals, goals, goals: Expectations vs. reality

Published by Lori Pickert on January 2, 2010 at 04:38 PM


Setting and working toward goals is like traveling through the Fire Swamp. There are the fire spurts of distraction, the quicksand of despair, and the R.O.U.S.'s (Rodents of Unusual Size) of other people’s expectations.

The Fire Spurts of Distraction

We announce on Monday that we will be doing X from now on … but then we forget on Tuesday. We don’t think about it again until Thursday, by which time it seems like a lost cause. I mean, if you aren’t starting something new on the first day of the first month of a new year, what use is it? At least we should wait until Monday.

How can we stay focused?

Set yourself up for success: Write down your goal in your journal, post it on the wall, talk about it with your children. Celebrate your successes. When you backslide, set a good example for persistence — simply start again.

The Quicksand of Despair

Things aren’t working out the way you wanted them to. You stopped doing the things you wanted to do. The kids are veering off the path you wanted them on. In fact, they’re right back to their old routine. It’s obvious that you aren’t up to this, and you should probably just give up.

How can we stay positive?

Remember that your children’s best lesson for how to live a good life is the way you live yours. Be as supportive and encouraging of yourself as of your child. Remember that it’s only failure when you don’t get back up again. Set a good example for optimism and resilience — accept imperfection and keep working toward your goal.

The  R.O.U.S.'s of Other People’s Expectations

You don’t actually need other people to express their opinions; by living on the planet for more than two decades you have absorbed them through your skin.

Your goal for your child may be something entirely reasonable like “I want him to have friends.” They will whisper in your ear: “Why does he have so many friends who are girls? Shouldn’t he play with more children his own age? Relatives don’t count!”

Your goal may be to help your child work more deeply. They whisper: “Shouldn’t he be covering more material? Is that the only thing he’s going to learn about this year? Isn’t he a little obsessed with [dinosaurs/trains/Greek mythology/bugs]?”

How can we live our values?

Our goals are tied irrevocably to our values. When we make a goal or a resolution, we are stating out loud how we want to change our outside life to match our inside idea of what is important.

My boys love Aesop’s fable about the man, the boy, and the donkey. I reference it frequently.

A Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: "You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?"

So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: "See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides."

So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn't gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: "Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along."

Well, the Man didn't know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said:

"Aren't you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours and your hulking son?"

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey's feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

"That will teach you," said an old man who had followed them:

“Please all, and you will please none!”

We need to recognize that there are many opinions and prejudices floating around, and we have internalized most of them. But we have taken the time and given careful thought to identifying our core values — and that is how we want to live, aligned with those core values.

Kipling said, “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too” … It is natural to recognize the opinions of others and the doubt they cast upon your choices. The important thing is being able to say, “But this is what I believe. And so this is how I am going to live.”

What are you doing? And why?

Your goals and resolutions are the what. Your values are the why.


Reflection and planning

Published by Lori Pickert on January 1, 2010 at 04:44 PM

There’s nothing to reinforce the values of reflection and planning like the one-two punch of the holidays and the new year.

In November and December, we gather together with our loved ones and eat a lot of pie while simultaneously justifying every education and life decision we’ve made for our children. Aunt Edna wants to know why they’re not in organized sports, Grandpa Bill is loudly quizzing them on their times tables over turkey and stuffing, and your best friend from high school knows a really sad story about a homeschooled boy who just fell apart when he tried to attend public high school but she’s sure your kids will be fine.

Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels. Sacajawea made the same journey as Louis and Clark, but pregnant and then carrying a baby. (My 7-year-old told me that one.) (I was very proud.) Our knee-jerk reaction to all this familial interest/challenge can easily cause us to lose our focus as we prepare for battle. When we’re poked and pressured to show we’re doing as well as, we resolve instead to prove that we’re better.

Early November would be a great time to pull out your journal and reflect on everything your children accomplished in the previous year. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, you’d be feeling great and focused on your children and what they are really doing and how much great work is still ahead — rather than caught unprepared with a forkful of mashed potatoes and a swiftly blooming defensive attitude. Perhaps you could share your good feelings without slipsliding into justification.

We come home from the holidays and put away the decorations, and it’s impossible to avoid the thundering sound of a new year rolling in. Whether you are someone who revels in fresh starts and setting new goals or someone who is bah humbug about resolutions, there is no denying that sense of newness and possibility.

Coming straight off all those holiday conversations about what we’re doing and why, we should be well prepared to review our goals and set our plans for the upcoming year. After all, what are we doing? And why?

Your family and friends very helpfully put you through your explaining and defending paces. Maybe you felt a little caught off-guard or a little less than perfectly articulate when you tried to express your family’s values, your goals, your thoughts about education and life. If so, then now is your chance to think those things over very deliberately.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about goals.

What are you doing? And why?


Published by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2009 at 08:28 PM

Here’s a Twilight Zone-type premise for you. What if surgeons never got to work on humans, they were instead just endlessly in training, cutting up cadavers? What if the same went for all adults — we only got to practice at simulated versions of our jobs? Lawyers only got to argue mock cases, for years and years. Plumbers only got to fix fake leaks in classrooms. Teachers only got to teach to videocameras, endlessly rehearsing for some far off future. Book writers like me never saw our work put out to the public — our novels sat in drawers. Scientists never got to do original experiments; they only got to recreate scientific experiments of yesteryear. And so on.

Rather quickly, all meaning would vanish from our work. Even if we enjoyed the activity of our job, intrinsically, it would rapidly lose depth and relevance. It’d lose purpose. We’d become bored, lethargic, and disengaged.

In other words, we’d turn into teenagers. — Po Bronson, Why Teenagers Are Growing Up So Slowly Today, on his book NurtureShock

Adolescents are actually two people in one — a regressed child and an emergent adult.  For too long parents and experts alike have concentrated on the former to the detriment of the latter. — Michael Riera, Field Guide to the American Teenager

We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality. — Joseph and Claudia Allen, Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old


Published by Lori Pickert on August 5, 2009 at 05:04 PM

In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new — “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously remarked — the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.

The hope among scientists is that a better understanding of grit will allow educators to teach the skill in schools and lead to a generation of grittier children. Parents, of course, have a big role to play as well, since there’s evidence that even offhand comments — such as how a child is praised — can significantly influence the manner in which kids respond to challenges.The Truth About Grit

The article goes on to discuss that while intelligence is important, it isn’t nearly enough — and increasingly the focus is on the personality traits that help people succeed and be happy.

Our old friend Dweck is referenced as well as the praise problem.

What say you? Can grit be taught in schools?

See also: The Only Thing That Matters

Teaching kids to hate reading

Published by Lori Pickert on June 17, 2009 at 01:21 AM


“Mom, I hate reading. I did not want to tell you that, ’cause I know that it’s your job and reading is a big deal to you, but I really really hate it. I dream of the day when I will never have to do reading again. If I was on a desert island, I would rather die of starvation, than read a book. And, if you think I am weird or something, you gotta know, all my friends feel exactly the same way.Angela Maiers, Reading Without Meaning — Heartbreak at Home

Here’s the question. Is it just reading they’re learning to hate?

See also: Reading and In Defense of Reading .. Which Should Need No Defense