Differentiation! An agreement with David Brooks op/ed

In a recent op/ed in the NY Times, David Brooks’ makes a claim that schools are failing to provide ways for rowdy, competitive boys to find success in school. Brooks’ claim is that many typical behaviors are not supported by the environment. As a result, this subset of boys must either change or fail out of school, he says. He cites falling numbers of high school and college graduation as evidence that many are failing out.

I agree with Brooks. I think his point is supported by the cry for differentiation that has been echoing for decades. Differentiation theory calls for multiple paths to success. Paths can still be rigorous but they need to be available. And I think that schools are too often structured in the wrong ways and not structured enough in the right ways.

Wrong structures, in my opinion, are those that suppress behaviors that are, according to psychologists, both developmentally normal and necessary for adulthood. This includes setting ones’ own schedule and choosing ones’ own tasks (see executive function). Typically, I would argue, the teacher is setting schedules and choosing tasks. Executive function, according to psychologists, develops from preK through high school and into the 20s (see auto insurance rates for men under 25; their deficient ability to assess risk as a group will be apparent). Schools may either help or hinder this development in each of the many types of students present in each classroom. I think the rigid schedules and task lists inhibit development of executive function in students who have a strong impulse to set their own agendas.

Another wrong structure is the tragic application of only 1/3 of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. Bloom’s taxonomy is one of the most widely applied theories on learning in the K12 world. I challenge anyone to find a school in the U.S. where the teachers have not heard of it. Benjamin Bloom (1956) theorized that there are three parts to learning: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Standards typically focus only on the cognitive functions while affective and psychomotor domains are often ignored. Sure, there’s PE class and sometimes teacher’s ask an obviously upset student, “What’s wrong?”, but affect and motor development typically fall by the wayside. Arguments we find for applying only 1/3 of Bloom’s are simply a defense of the status quo and not a defense of what children need to develop into whole adults.

So if the development of executive function and affect are largely ignored by schools, what should change?

I think a right way to structure schools is to diversify the setting such that rowdy movement, impulse, and friendly competition (some of the traits that Brooks argues are inhibited) are a viable path to success in school. I will add that the quiet, nervous boys should also have a way to succeed. I think the boys who like collaboration should be challenged to succeed. It’s not that the current environment is wrong, it’s just too narrow. I think Brook’s would agree here.

Before you think I mean to say that all behaviors emerging from developing boys be encouraged, I do not say that. Schools do need rules. A school cannot be chaotic. I do not propose that kids do whatever they please. There must be structure. But I do think there should be room, often literally, for children to run and explore and build, to define problems, to formulate solutions, and then to follow through to completion. As children grow into young adults, these activities should increase in sophistication.

So what would be an example of what I am talking about? Schools need to facilitate solving the types of problems which students would like to solve. For upper elementary grades with classes of 11-15 students (student/teacher ratio being issue close to my heart), schools might add the following options: building a wooden fort and the accompanying applied geometry called carpentry. Damming a stream (one of my favorite childhood activities) in order to learn about watersheds, materials technology, and even some basic physics if a teacher is there to explain it.  Having student run competing newspapers that cover school events and select news from mainstream papers. Having students run competitive gaming leagues of whatever type they like DURING school hours. Brooks mentions learning to deal with both wins and losses. Schools should provide these opportunities. Failure is just as valuable a learning tool as success. However, the failures that are a part of the learning process should not be defined as academic failures. Similarly, the characteristics that emerge from a subset of healthy children should also not mean academic failure. Remember that boys have been boys for tens of thousands of years, while compulsory schooling has only been around for about a hundred. We’re still working out the kinks when it comes to formal education.

Stereotype Threat

Reactivity is a phenomenon that occurs when a subject’s performance changes because he knows his performance is being evaluated. As an educator, I am interested in the effect of reactivity on standardized test performance. In particular, my interest centers on the effect this may have on the persisting difference in test scores between between white and black students in America. Evidence suggests that a particular type of reactivity called stereotype threat may be a contributing factor.

Professor Jeff Stone, a social psychologist at the  University of Arizona, studies stereotype threat. In one experiment, three groups made a series of identical golf puts. But each group was told a different characteristic was being measured: Group 1 was told “sports psycology”; group 2 was told the round would measure “natural athletic ability”; group 3 was told “sports intelligence”. The researchers were not measuring these characteristics. They were looking for correlations between race of the subject, common racial stereotypes, and effects on the subject’s performance. The researchers found the following: being told what was being measured had a statistically significant effect on performance.

  • Group 1: control group. The term “sports psychology” was chosen because it had no bearing on stereotypes. No measured effect on performance between white and blacks subjects.
  • Group 2: “natural athletic ability”. Black subjects’ performance was measurably than white subjects.
  • Group 3: “sports intelligence”. White subjects’ performance was measurably better than black subjects.

The data showed a correlation between a subject’s race, stereotype of that race, and performance when the subject believed stereotyped characteristic was being tested for. In other words, individual performance on this test regardless of actual ability, improved or declined based on racial stereotype, even if it was a negative result. Many other studies reach similar conclusions.

Despite the strong possibility that stereotype threat is affecting childrens’ test scores in every state, lawmakers and administrators use standardized tests to make decisions every day. Decisions that affect children’s beliefs about themselves, about school funding, and applying to college. White/black race relations are inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture and history. As Roger Wilkins said to me in 2001 after a talk he gave at NVCC, “The problem is 400 years old. Is 40 years [referring to civil rights movement] enough to fix it”? So while we may not have a short-term solution to the achievement gap, we shouldn’t exacerbate it by making decisions based on invalid test results.

TED-Ed: Adding Animation to Great Lessons

I have mentioned TED talks in previous posts. TED-Ed is an initiative to have professional graphics developers animate selected teachers’ best lessons for web distribution. The TED-Ed introduction video is only two minutes long and shows what TED-Ed envisions better than I can write. The video itself is the case in point! Better to show and tell than just tell. Top comment on the video as of my viewing was “I hope this turns out to be something like an animated Khanacademy 😀 [sic]”.

3/19 update: TedTalks available for streaming on Netflix. Still available free on YouTube.

Apple’s iBooks2

Apple is getting into the e-textbook business with iBooks2. However, this may not be the death knell for the big players in the industry, as a few of the big names have been working with Apple on this project. Maybe we’ll get a hint of the direction this takes textbook publishing with a new academic year this fall. Perhaps the $14.99 max price tag will save schools a lot of money compared to $100+ for many traditional textbooks?

1/25 Update: Fox didn’t agree about the pricing. iPads aren’t exactly cheap, even if the texts might be.

My hope is that this release will seed the ground for some open source projects that really do push this idea of interactive textbooks forward.

1) Nearly all of what is taught in schools is public domain. Why do schools pay for textbooks? e-textbooks should be free, and the money should go to other needs in schools. One Slate writer agrees.

2) Bill Gates was on Bill Moyers last night, which I didn’t see, but this brief article relates what I think is THE most important, yet unrealized ability of using computers to deliver instruction: individualization. I don’t just mean a fast student taking 4 months instead 8 months to go through the same course as every other student. I mean courses that can react to student’s learning styles and adjust complexity, depth, or review of material according to a student’s grades or learning style. Individualization does not mean a course won’t be rigorous, or that every student shouldn’t have to do well on standardized test. My thought is that a great e-textbook will offer a student several paths to achieve state learning standards, or do well on the SAT or an AP exam. There is no reason a state, say California or Texas, couldn’t take 10 of their great teachers (capture the “paths” they provide in their own classrooms) and give them a year to write, say, a biology e-textbook with the help of a few graphic designers and software developers, and then provide that e-textbook for free to all the students of the state. Teachers can submit updates that go through committee to keep up with advances in research. Seems simple enough to me.

3/8 Update: Some background on e-books pricing methods in this WSJ article on DOJ’s threat to sue five publishers for alleged price fixing.