Friday, April 25, 2014

What I look forward to

At the end of May I'll be in a classroom again. I'll be teaching again; formally, that is. By that time seven months will have passed since I was last in a classroom on a regular basis. I'm a bit nervous. Surely I'll be a bit rusty, and I may need to somewhat regain my "teacher legs" (legs that stand for 6+ hours a day). But there are so many things I'm looking forward to. Here are ten that I think of most often (in no particular order):

  1. Smiling students
  2. Unsmiling students
  3. Working with other language professionals
  4. Getting to know more than 100 new individuals
  5. Hearing the accents of students from around the world
  6. Learning about different cultures through my students 
  7. Discussions of linguistics
  8. Diagnosing errors (Interference? Incomplete learning? Mental slip?)
  9. Developing strategies to assist students in their language learning
  10. Answering students questions during office time

This is an incomplete list, but nevertheless a list of some things I'm looking forward to.

Whatever your occupation or vocation, what are some things you look forward to when you go to work?

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Monday, April 21, 2014

The ORIGINAL common core

The Common Core is obviously a divisive subject in the US today. It's definitely been overly politicized and probably over criticized. In a world as grey as ours, to think social issue is completely black or white is incredibly naïve.

The Common Core State Standards are imperfect, to be sure. I for one do not want increased standardized testing, which seems likely under CCSS. I am also a proponent of literature, something deemphasized in the CCSS. But are they as bad as opponents charge? Is it really a case of social experimentation?

Perhaps the better question might be this: Since the demise of classical education, what isn't social experimentation?

How many of you recall learning Latin (or possibly Greek) in high school or university? I'm too young to recall that era (though I did study a year of Greek during university), but it was not long ago that such was the standard.

Two or three years ago I read Who killed Homer: The demise of classical education and the recovery of Greek wisdom, which was the first time (other than the first day of class in Dead Poets Society) that I ever thought about how it was once the norm for students to labor over Latin declensions. Recently, while reading The story of ain't: America, its language, and the most controversial dictionary ever published, I was reminded of this part of US history. What ever happened to Latin in schools?

Like the United States itself, modern educational theory informed by Dewey is a social experiment. Montessori schools and charter schools are social experiments. Homeschooling in it's present-day form is a social experiment. Pretty much anything not considered classical education are social experiments. As some point out, classical education is possibly still superior to any modern alternative.

Why is virtually no one clamoring for classical education? Why is no one up in arms demanding a return to obligatory high school Latin classes? It seems no one wants the original common core: Latin, Greek, and mathematics.

I'm not asking anyone to support the Common Core. I'm not asking anyone to oppose the Common Core. It may be good to remember, however, that education since the 1960s (at the very latest) has been one reform after another, one experiment after another. Unless we plan to go back to classical education, let's have everyone take a breath and get some perspective: People decried the loss of Latin, yet students have continued to be educated.

The Common Core is imperfect, as is any education theory and all education methods, but it is no more than the downfall education or society than was the loss of Latin class. (Though, I'd be in favor of bringing that back, too.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Learning through quizzing

This morning my son was eating toast with peanut butter as part of breakfast. I asked him, "What shape is this?" He didn't feel like answering. (It was a triangle.)

Have you ever noticed that we ask constantly questions like this to young children? What color is the car? What shape is a basketball? Where did we go yesterday? What is this vegetable? We ask questions, lots of questions. Why? To test them? To check their learning?

As it turns out, research shows that quizzing or testing is one of the most effective learning strategies. There has been a lot of analysis done, but here is a video summing it up. The most relevant discussion begins at 3:30 and the most pertinent comments start at 5:47.

This morning it dawned on me that we almost instinctively do this with our own children all the time. We review the alphabet or shapes or colors every few days as opportunities arise (distributed or spaced learning). We ask questions that require retrieval/recall (testing). We switch topics and activities (interleaving). Instinctively, we do this with children. What causes us as students and learners to so often abandon these strategies as we grow up?

Is it that we're lazy, so we don't want to make flashcards?

Is it that we want to  independent, so we don't want to work with others and quiz one another?

Is it that we're undisciplined, so we just want to wait until the night before?

Is it that we're ignorant, so we just do what others do?

Is it that teachers have taught us poor strategies?

I know I want to make sure my students know which strategies are more helpful. I want my students to know that how they study a crucial factor in learning. I need to help students develop effective study habits.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 5: Closing thoughts)

A good teacher is hard to define. It is even more difficult to develop formal evaluation protocols. Over the past few posts, I discussed evaluating teachers based on their ability to inspire. I've discussed evaluation based on students' test scores (a very prevalent idea today). Student evaluation of teachers has been touched on, as has teachers' own test scores and academic performance.

We've also seen how all of these fail to truly and fully evaluate a teacher.

What else could be looked at? How about peer evaluation? How about changed lives of the students? How about a continuum based on the number of students who fall asleep in class? There are strengths and weaknesses of every conceivable method, though some methods would be stronger than others.

What qualities do we look for in good teachers? The following is a list of some qualities I would want for my own children and for my students:
  • a sense of duty to the students
  • the willingness to let students explore
  • the readiness and ability to reflect upon their own practice
  • the courage to make mistakes
  • the humility to say "I was wrong"
  • competence in their field
  • a love for reading
  • the willingness to be unpopular (with students or peers) it improves justice
  • a desire to refine their craft through study, research, and acquiring feedback
  • a love for learning
  • a belief that passion for learning is more valuable than orderliness
  • the hope that students will achieve
What would you add to this list? What would you take away?

Other posts in the series:
Part 1: Inspiration?
Part 2: Test scores?
Part 3: Student evaluations?
Part 4: Grades and scores?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Monday, April 07, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 4: Good grades?)

This is part four of my series examining various criteria the public, teachers, administrators, government officials and others seem to mention when answer this question: What is a good teacher?

There's no universal standard by which to define a good, let alone great, teacher. There are no universally agreed upon measures rubrics or checklists. Can we simply say we know a good teacher when I see one? We can but shouldn't.

Today's topic is an identifying construct: University grades and scores on teacher training exams.

Are good teachers those with the best grades?

My wife and I have discussed the difference between what Chinese consider a good student and what I consider a good student. For her (Chinese, also a teacher), a good student is one with good grades, and the best student is the one with the best grades. For me, a good student will usually have good grades, but I look more at motivation, diligence, and those traits that lead to success, not the success itself.

I wonder if this is true for teachers, as well. Or perhaps any profession, for that matter.

A few weeks back I was looking into getting my teaching license in Texas. Regardless of my experience or my existing endorsements listed on my Iowa license, I was told that I would have to take a battery of exams: one for teaching in general, one for my mathematics endorsement, and one for my ESL endorsement. Eventually I found a job in Arkansas, so I've put the Texas licensure on hold.

It got me thinking, however.

Exams can be positive
In some ways, the exams are surely positive. Obviously, you'd want to ensure teachers know their subject areas. A math teacher should understand math. A biology teacher should understand biology. Also, especially in elementary education, you'd want to make sure teachers have all the basic skills of math, language, etc. needed to instruct students.

On the other hand...
A teacher may not be able to recite or even identify Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but is it needed to realize hungry children, sleep-deprived children, and children in unsafe home environments will have more difficulty in school? A teacher may not be incredibly familiar with Howard Gardener's multiple intelligence theory, but is such explicit knowledge necessary to a teacher experienced in looking for their students strengths and engaging them in those ways?

Does an ESL teacher have to remember Stephen Krashen and his input hypothesis, or is it enough to know that students need to get comprehensible input, even if that term is also unknown? Does an ESL teacher have to know the term scaffolding if they've been doing it since before the term hit the mainstream? An ESL teacher may not know the term recasting, but he or she may recast successfully 50 times a day.

Back to the initial question
For those who pass these exams with the highest scores, does that imply that they are the most qualified candidates?

High school and university and graduate school: I was a good student; I worked hard, and I earned relatively high scores. At the same time, school came relatively easy to me. That's not to say that everything was easy; rather, it just never seemed like the struggle it was for some of my classmates. Does that mean I should be a better teacher? I don't think so.

Could teachers who struggled to learn be more aware of the difficulties students may have? Could the teachers who've had to work harder to develop learning strategies be better able to help students develop learning strategies? Could teachers who themselves needed more personal attention from their teachers be more willing to give personal attention to their own students? Does high performance in academic training neccessarily translate into effective teaching in the classroom?

Football players with great performances at the NFL combine don't always become great (or even good) NFL players. How many great NCAA basketball players have become NBA draft busts? Likewise, brilliant med students don't always make the best doctors or surgeons, and there have been plenty of business failures made by mediocre and great business students alike. I assume the same is true of teachers.

There are simply intangibles that refuse to be assessed by exams, but these intangibles can make or break a teacher. These intangibles separate teachers who are more and less effective. Perhaps these can be taught and learned, but tested? Not as of yet.

Other posts in the series:
Part 1: Inspiration?
Part 2: Test scores?

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman

Friday, April 04, 2014

What exactly is a good (or great) teacher? (Part 3: Student evaluation?)

This is part three of my series examining various criteria the public, teachers, administrators, government officials and others seem to mention when answer this question: What is a good teacher?

There's no universal standard by which to define a good, let alone great, teacher. There are no universally agreed upon measures rubrics or checklists. Can we simply say we know a good teacher when I see one? We can but shouldn't

Today's topic hits a different note: Positive (or negative) student evaluations.

Are good teachers those whom the students like?

This seems like a good criterion. If students like a teacher, surely that teacher is doing a good job, right?


Obviously it would matter why the students like a specific teacher. Does the teacher inspire? Does the teacher excite the students about learning? Does the teacher transform what might be dull material into something students look forward to learning? Does the teacher help students exceed their own and other's expectations? Does the teacher help students feel successful and/or be successful? Do the students know this teacher cares about them?

Obviously these characteristics would be be excellent indications that students have identified a great teacher. However...

Does the teacher give little homework? Are the teacher's tests easy? Does the teacher teach a blow-off course? Does the teacher show videos and movies that entertain the students but may do little to educate them? Does the teacher 

How did students evaluate the teacher? Were surveys given? Were interviews done? Were responses anonymous or not? Where responses confidential, or were students being "supervised"? Were the evaluation tools accurate? Did the tools ask the questions that got to the root of why students liked or disliked a teacher?

Can we assume that the students (as a whole) evaluate well? Were tehy reading questions carefully? Were they putting thought into their responses? Were they rushing through checking boxes just to finish? Were they vindictive after the teacher called them out or challenged them more than they'd otherwise prefer? Student may have felt they learned a lot, but can they be sure they actually did (see p. 61)? Could students confuse teaching ability with their own enthusiasm or distaste for the subject matter?

All said, I do think there is great promise in students' evaluations of teachers. But there are some major concerns along the way.

Other posts in the series:
Part 1: Inspiration?
Part 2: Test scores?
Part 4: Grades and scores?
Part 5: Closing thoughts

Follow me on Twitter @MatthewTShowman