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Friday, August 18, 2017

American Schools are Improving! Don't let them tell you differently

I distinctly remember each of my back to school teacher convocations in late August.  Tanned and relaxed teachers shambling into the local high school auditorium, coffees in hand, eagerly seeking out their colleagues to sit with. Soon their minds were transitioning from the lake, beach or mountains to their classroom.  Invited speakers shared words of encouragement and inspired the audience through images, stories and tone.  Our district's administrators were very skilled at pairing the year's mission with the positive aspects of being a teacher. I appreciated that.  All too often, the news and politicians retch how poorly our schools perform, both parties rarely do the research to make those claims.  They just regurgitate platitudes spewed by people with alternative motives.
Contemporary American educators have accomplished more, with a more diverse student population, than any previous generation (DuFour, 2016) According to Washington Post columnist Paul Farhi, – high school completion rates, college graduation, overall performance on standardized tests – America's educational attainment has never been higher (2012).  He goes on to describe how the media is partially responsible for putting out the wrong message.  The term failing schools was used 544 times a month in newspapers and wire stories in 2012.  If you go back 20 years, that term only appeared 13 times.  Perceptions are absolutely influenced and fabricated by what the media perpetuates. Stop knocking us!  We're moving in the right direction.

In DuFour's ( A Guide to Action for PLCs book (2016), they share the following statistics:

  • We now have the highest high school graduation rates in American history, and the rates have improved for every sub group of students.
  • More high school students are succeeding in rigorous college-level work than ever before in our history.
  • The scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have improved steadily since that test was first administered in the 1970s (Ravitch, 2014)
  • American students score int he top ten in the world and considerably above the international mean on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) exams
  • Since 2009, parent satisfaction with their local schools has been among the highest ever recorded in the more than four decades since Phi Delta Kappan and the Gallup Poll began conducting the survey.
  • One in five American schools has more than 75 percent of their students living in poverty.  When American schools with low poverty are compared to the highest performing countries in the world with similar poverty rates, American students outperform their international peers (Shyamalan, 2013).
  • American students consistently rate their teachers among the highest in the world on such qualities as fairness and willingness to provide them extra support (DuFour, 2015)
There are so many wonderful teachers doing wonderful things in the classroom.  Help them and others remember that and to keep working toward getting better and better.

Friday, April 17, 2015

What If Your Students Know More Than You Do?

What If Your Students Know More Than You Do? Click title to left to go to my article on Edutopia

Observations of Great Teaching: A Hodgepodge of Characteristics and Traits

It is no surprise that good teachers share similar pedagogical approaches but vary greatly in their classroom presence. In my observations of good and great teachers, these things are evident:

  1. A mutual respect between teacher and student exists
  2. Great planning and execution of a lesson are key to classroom management
  3. A consistent approach to classroom expectations benefits students
  4. Honest and positive feedback strengthens students' self-efficacy
  5. The ability to explain concepts and tasks in multiple ways alleviates frustration
  6. They have an excellent understanding of which students are ready to move on and when
  7. A strong knowledge of the curriculum, learning objectives and pacing

  • They are not micro-managed by school administrators
  • They are treated as true professionals
  • They are supported 
  • They never insult or demean a student (even as a joke).
  • They communicate often with parents

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

15 Effective Ways to Use Google Docs in Class

Technology is meant to be utilized to enhance instruction, provide a platform for students to be "producers of knowledge" not just consumers, and to make the management of assignments easier. So, more time instructing, less time organizing and correcting.

Link is courtesy of Educational Technology and Mobile Learning.

Monday, November 3, 2014

 Illustration by Tomi Um

Promising trend. There are many factors that influence the data, but it looks like there a significant improvements in key areas.

U.S. High School Dropout Rates Fall, Especially Among Latinos

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Einstein, China, and The Value of Play in Your Child's Education: Our Greatest Commodity

Einstein: Albert Einstein, the brilliant physicist had a prolific imagination. He attributed the development of the theory of relativity to his ability to think like a child. He never lost that quality. In Howard Gardner's fascinating book Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi, when asked how did it come to pass that he was the one to develop the theory, Einstein recounts
 "The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought of as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up. Naturally I could go deeper into the problem than a child with normal abilities" China: If you are an educator or have been in the last ten years, then you have most likely had delegations from the Chinese Ministry of Education visit your district, or you have traveled there. You also have probably heard or read of the great concern for American public education and its demise amongst countries like Finland and Singapore. Although there is some truth to those concerns, they are for the most part misrepresented and twisted. In my opinion, and that of other researchers and educators, the biggest problem in this country is the economic inequity between the rich and poor. There is no problem with education that doesn't derive from that attribute. We don't need to fix our schools as much as we need to fix our communities and the distribution of wealth. The famous educational philosopher John Dewey stated that "schools are a direct reflection of our communities". But, that topic is for another article. Back to China. One question that many of the Asian delegates repeatedly asked their American counterparts is how can they get their students to be as innovative and creative as American children. One of the inherent qualities and blessings of American culture is time to play, especially in childhood. MIT professor and speaker Scot Osterweil stresses this point often. He attributes this luxurious use of time to characteristics of creativity, productivity, ingenuity, and the development of imagination. Under his Twitter moniker it reads "If you aren't playing, it isn't life".

 Play: One of the most disturbing banners I've seen loomed over the doors of an urban kindergarten classroom. It read "College Starts Here!". No, it doesn't. Preschool, kindergarten, and a good portion of every classroom should incorporate time for play and time for pondering. Slow the rush to "get through" activities and the curricula. Let ideas stew, get tossed around, develop. Those are such important qualities of thought. In the hoopla of standardized testing and assessment, we as educators focus too much on ensuring that students can write the robotic five paragraph essay and solve problems and equations. But it's at a cost. Do students truly understand the conceptualization of what they're learning? Do the children get to utilize the "ideation" process of creating and writing? Once children understand the foundational knowledge of each subject, they should move beyond it. We can drill concepts and steps into our children and extend the hours of school, but that will only beget robotic students. So teachers and parents-keep encouraging your kids to get out and play, use their imaginations, and give them time to foster great ideas. Give them a stick, a paper towel tube, a shoebox, some tape, and string and watch their world expand. Thoughtfulness, playfulness and the time to do both are keys to great things.

Monday, October 20, 2014

I had  the pleasure of hearing and watching one of the most interesting students. His name is Jack Andraka. It was refreshing to drink in his youth, enthusiasm, and the ability to go beyond the limiting walls of an old institution-school. His wonderfully creative mind paired with a focused passion is leading this young man to a bright, contributory future in the field of innovation and creativity. If you get the chance to see his presentation, please do yourself a favor and make the trip. 

I'm including his bio below from the CECA/CASL event.

After a close family friend died of pancreatic cancer, Jack Andraka (then a ninth grader) became interested in finding a better early-detection diagnostic test. At age 15, he invented an inexpensive and sensitive dipstick-like sensor for the rapid and early detection of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers.

As a result of his hard work, Jack won the $75,000 grand prize at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair in the spring of 2012, one of the few freshman ever to do so. Jack partially attributes his success to free online content. Combining his knowledge and information obtained from other free sources like Wikipedia and YouTube he invented his cheap, effective, and novel way of testing for pancreatic cancer.

Jack  will share his story with us, as well as discuss how his family's philosophy about learning has shaped his way of thinking.  Further,  Jack  will share his views on his experiences in public education and how he believes schools may both help and hinder a student's intellectual growth and creativity.  Though his insights we may find a few ways to help more kids to look at problems a bit more like  Jack !

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Teach More, Test Less

Take a look at your child's teachers, are they stressed? Are they always busy completing forms, evaluation documents and testing schedules? Do you know how much time a teacher spends on NON-instructional paperwork as opposed to actual teaching time? I do, it is too much.

My own children take a DRP, DRA, CMT, soon to be SBAC, an NWEA assessment for reading and math that is given two to three times during a school year AND they give it in the library! Other students have no or limited to access to the library during this two to four week period! That is ridiculous. Then there are the school-based monthly diagnostics called "snapshots", "dipsticks" or common assessments, if they're in high school they have the CTE assessments, PSATs, SATs, ACTs, CAPT soon to be SBAC. This is not an exhaustive list. How many hours of instruction, discussion, interaction, analysis and sanity are lost as teachers and administrators plan, execute and analyze all of this information? How Many? How much money is spent by local school districts to have all of these testing companies deliver, administer and score our children's tests?(By the way, do you know who scores your children's tests?) How much money is spent by districts to purchase computers so that we can administer the new SBACs? I certainly have alternative ideas on how to better spend those funds.

Assessing students is necessary. It provides valuable diagnostic information for the teacher. But do our children need five different assessments to tell the teachers that a student is a proficient or struggling reader? As an experience teacher, I can comfortably say no.

You cannot accurately and reliably evaluate a school, teacher or administrator using instruments designed to provide the achievement or growth levels of children. There are so many other factors that go into the qualities of a good teacher or a good school.

As a child, I attended school in a urban/suburban district. It was a racially and economically mixed district with a significant free and reduced lunch population.

My first grade teacher was a hard working, dedicated and warm woman who took the time to help me learn to read, write and behave in class. She was an excellent teacher, not because I tested well in her classroom, but because she was knowledgeable and encouraging.

My fourth grade teacher was strict, disciplined, and had a no-nonsense approach to teaching. Her lessons were challenging and required students to focus and follow along. It was in her class where I learned how to study. It was also when I finally grasped multiplication and division. To this day I still recall my math facts using her unique approach for teaching. She was an excellent teacher, not because I tested well in her classroom, but because she had a deep understanding of pedagogy and differentiation.

My sixth grade teacher rarely smiled but was a warm person. I knew she liked us. She seldom praised students for high grades, but often pointed out exceptional effort and perseverance displayed by her pupils. She always picked the most entertaining books for read-alouds. She managed to keep 25 eleven and twelve-year-old children enthralled in post-recess stories. She was an excellent teacher, not because I tested well in her classroom, but because she understood children and the psychology of how they learn. She rewarded effort. If you worked hard, you reaped the benefits for extra recess or a movie.

My eighth grade history teacher wove humor and hands-on activities into his lessons. We often worked on mini projects or experiments in his class that demonstrated what life was like in early America. He was funny but required respectful obedience. He praised effort and took the time to explain concepts to kids who struggled. He was an excellent teacher, not because I tested well in his class, but because he had a deep understanding of a rich curriculum and he ensured that all of the students learned, regardless of the pace.

My sophomore English teacher sat on a desk at the front of the classroom. We sat at desks in neat rows, but we discussed literature as if there was no furniture. Mrs. M. selected outstanding books for us to read. Most of the class time was spent reading round-robin style. We were not dependable enough to read outside of school. So instead we read, discussed, analyzed and wrote about each book during class time. Her course was a catalyst for my voracious need to read. I loved the books we read and discussed. I loved that I loved to read. She was an excellent teacher, not because I tested well in her class, but because she modified the delivery of her instruction to meet the unique needs of my class. She had a deep knowledge of the stories she taught and she LOVED literature. She had a sublime passion for each story and we connected with them. It was infectious.

Each teacher had a profound influence on my development. I was not aware of it at the time, but they were great teachers. They were great because they dedicated much of their non-instructional time to learn about their subject. They planned lessons, activities and prepared the classroom for the next day. They were great teachers because they had time to think, reflect, plan and to TEACH.

Not all teachers are great teachers. There are some who would best serve the public by choosing a different profession. But there are many outstanding teachers who are slowly being smothered by the overwhelming amount of unnecessary information, and redundant redundant redundancies of student data.

Teach more, test less.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

This is a very helpful guide created by one of my wonderful students. Parents, teachers and students will appreciate the guide. Have a look!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What makes an effective teacher? Snippets shared by high schoolers

I informally polled high school students this week to see what qualities they believe effective teachers possess. More importantly than the words below are the words not, tester, evaluation, and so on and so forth.

Wordle: what high schoolers think is an effective teacher

Saturday, August 31, 2013

First Impressions Last

A great way to begin the year.

Imagine going to the theater or the movies to see a highly anticipated show. Now imagine if the first 45 minutes were filled with the director explaining his expectations and then he gives an outline of the story, when you should clap, what to look for, how to get in touch if you have questions, and when and where you can use the rest rooms. Yuck!

 I prefer an attention-grabbing opening scene that ignites my interest and has me on the edge of my seat. So why do so many teachers feel the need to begin their year with a mundane regurgitation of marginally important information? Is it habit, lack of vision, and an expected routine? Or is it time constraints, fear and apathy, or perpetuated misinformation, or something else? I believe a little of each is true, but I also believe a gentle nudge to be creative in the opening of a classroom should be contagious and encouraged. Let's make that a part of the school's opening expectations.

The first action does not have to be an icebreaker activity. I can imagine that would become tedious in a full day of middle or high school classes. I often cringe while attending a professional development session and the instructor feels the need to get me out of my seat at 8:00 a.m. to hop around or play a guessing game. I just want to ease into the day with a cup of coffee. Although, after I begrudgingly participate I usually enjoy it. Usually.

So what should teachers do?

  1.  Set the tone for learning by beginning with a great lesson. It should be short, exciting, fun and challenging. It can be content specific and derived from the curriculum.
  2.  Save the review of the syllabus for the middle or end of class. Or better yet, make a short screen cast and post the video for students to watch. A short quiz (online) to ensure they read the important information will suffice.
  3. Make sure the lesson is student-centered. They should do the talking, interacting, and presenting.
  4. Incorporate movement as often as possible, especially if you teach the younger ones.
  5. Feel free to involve other teachers and classes in your wing, department, grade level or section.
  6.  Be empathetic. Would you want to sit through class after class of teacher-led explanations? Kids do know how a classroom runs, trust me.
  7. You CAN begin the year without going over the year first! Save the boring stuff for day two!
  8. Remember, set the tone for learning, not just compliance!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gamification, How games make us better

I was one of 12,000 educators listening to keynoter Jan McGonigal speak about how gaming makes us better. Her neurological, physical and field research gives strong support to this method of learning. I've done much reading and listened to quite a few speakers present their findings. I have to say it has me strongly leaning to this approach.

The image below is an fMRI that shows the parts of the brain during interactive and passive exposure. According to  and perhaps contradictory to the stereotype of the gamer-as-slacker, fMRI brain imaging shows that interactive game play actually stimulates the parts of the brain - the caudate and thalamus - associated with reward and motivation, as well as the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and long-term memory.

Kids and adults alike do impressive things when you closely analyze what goes on in a complex video game. The player must fail, adapt, fail, adapt, learn, improve, increase hand/eye skills, keep a complex virtual world map in his/her memory. Many of the games are multiplayer and rely on the social interactions and help of others in order to succeed. Sound familiar? This is what we hope students are able to accomplish in the real world. One fascinating statistic shared by McGonigal was that "gamers" fail on average 80% of the time on their journey to mastery and yet are still motivated to keep at the tasks to master their game. 80%!! That is grit.

So, how to we apply that type of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, determination, grit and stick-to-itivness in formal education? One of my suggestions is to lessen the formal didactic model where students sit passively and absorb (if they're lucky) information. There is a place for that too, but it should NOT be the primary methodology. We should do more project-based learning where students tackle real, global or local issues and create solutions. The learning necessary to complete the project drives what they need to learn. If students are working on trying to bring potable water to an area that lacks it, then they need to learn about engineering, costs, transportation, communication, history and so forth.

School should be minimal on foundational courses. Kids in secondary and post-secondary schools should all work on problem-finding and problem-solving real-world, contemporary and future issues. Imagine a group of seniors who were able to feed a rural American town or provide clean drinking water to a remote Guatemalan village or improve safety equipment for healthcare workers....imagine.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Teen Brain

“Oh, I forgot.” How many parents and teachers have heard that response from a teen after the frazzled question of “Why didn’t you make your bed?” or “Where is your assignment?” or Why didn’t you do XYZ like I asked!!? The answer is most likely, all of us. What is it with teens? Can we do something about it? They answers are complex, and yes we can do something about it, but we need to be patient.There is a reason.

courtesy of UCLA
If you look at the picture of the brain to the left, you will notice that the human brain matures from front to back. The back is where the more basic functions occur. The color purple indicates a time lapse of neural maturation from five to twenty years of age.  The last major area of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex (the right side of the image). This area controls higher-order functions (emotions, self-control). The adolescent brain is undergoing major changes, usually between the ages of ten and fifteen. 

According to neuroscientist Richard Restak he states “it is helpful to keep in mind that the adolescent’s failures in concentration, focus, motivation, and consistent effort result not from willfulness or laziness or God forbid, “stupidity,” but from poor integration of the frontal lobes.” 

 My advice on how to help counter this is my advice on how to improve anything you do, do it often. What the brain does best is what the brain does often. Dr. Restak's statement is not an overarching excuse for all teen behavior. We know when in fact our children are being stubborn or lazy. But there are times where the directives given by parents bounce off the child's auditory processors like a racquet ball off a wall. It never sticks. I've gently held my son's face in front of me while calmly telling him to take out the trash before we leave the house. I waited for his eye contact and verbal response of "OK Dad, I will take out the trash". As I place my arm over the car's headrest while backing out of the garage, I asked my son if he did what I requested. His clumsy and surprised look foretells his answer. "Are you kidding me?!" "Patience, patience, patience" I repeat this mantra while waiting for his hurried actions to get the task done. Sound familiar?

It gets better. It takes time, but yes, the brain matures and teens are able to better manage these tasks. Each year, as more connections are made and the rewiring of the adolescent brain starts to come to completion, you will notice a change.

One of the most important facts that runs through any literature on cognition and improving cognitive functioning is that the brain requires repeated (practice) input. If you wish for your child to improve his organization and focusing skills, then teach him. We as adults assume that youngsters innately know how to organize and plan. This is not the case. They need instruction, guidance and reinforcement. This will develop and strengthen pathways to help themselves.  Equally as important is to limit your child's extended idleness, specifically, long periods of time doing nothing but playing video games, watching TV or texting. This too will create and strengthen the areas of the brain that oversee these tasks. I'm not telling you to eliminate the activities from their lives, but as I stated before, the brain does best what the brain does often.

A final thought. It is important for teens, and anyone else for that matter, to realize that learning and practicing are not "easy". It requires concentration, frustration, repetition and motivation. Children need to understand that working hard at something does not mean they are stupid, weak or have a lack of talent, working hard is the norm and also the quickest method of improving.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Little Italy, Chinatown, and Irish Villages-Lessons to improve your classroom environment

There is a strong neurological and psychological need for people to feel at home and familiar with their environment. The neural connections created and strengthened by a cornucopia of smells, sounds, feeling, sights and tastes, as well as the energy over time has a profound affect on the immigrant in a foreign land. To alleviate this physical yearning by the brain and psyche, people who share common customs tend to gravitate to the familiar, hence the formation of micro-communities such as Chinatown, Little Italy and other urban and suburban confluences of cultures. People not only prefer to be amongst others who share similar interests but according to neuroscientists , the brain yearns for the recognizable stimulation of the senses. The absence of those stimuli are at the neurological root of homesickness. Being homesick is not an immature psychological response to an overindulged child or adult. It is a physical absence of the neural stimulation experienced by a person. When I was a young man traveling around the world, I would pack a few pillowcases that were washed in the detergent my mother used for our laundry. It was a small remedy, but comforting. It feels better to be in a place one is accustomed to. Maybe Dorothy Gale was right. There is no place like home.

The same must hold true for students who enter classrooms each fall, especially the younger ones. As a teacher, ask yourself, is this my classroom or our classroom? If your answer is the former, consider making changes. What objects are in the room that give students a sense of ownership beyond the essays stapled to the bulletin boards? Do the children feel that they are guests in their classroom or is there a sense of proprietary participation?

A good friend, who I will refer to as Mr. "C", and I started teaching fourth grade together in the 1990s. After a couple years he moved across the hall and started teaching the first grade. I visited his class the following fall. The walls, windows and students' desks were adorned with pictures and drawings of the youngsters' families, friends and scattered about were stuffed pets and objects. The instant any guest walks into their room, the visitor is greeted with a high-pitched chorus of "Welcome to rooooom one!"  Mr. C and his students spent ample time organizing the classroom environment into a place that is comforting and inviting, not only for guests, but for the students as well.

There are plenty of research articles to support and explain the connections and correlations between student performance and a healthy, organized classroom, but common sense works well too. Where would you want to spend six hours a day? Would it be in a warm, familiar environment, or a cold, sparsely-decorated room ruled by a monotonous palate for uniformity?

A few steps to make a great learning place-
1. Make the room inviting for students by having them decorate it with things from home.
2. Create a "WE" feel to the classroom whereby students are responsible for the physical condition of the space.
3. Make sure the students truly believe the room is theirs and not just yours. Ensure they take ownership. That means the teacher refers to the classroom as "ours" not "my".

The more the students feel at home, the more the brain builds synaptic connections and the better off the students will be. Students who feel safe and comfortable will allot brain functions to thinking and learning instead of stress reduction. Give it a try!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Theory of Learning Explained-Constructivism

This is the first of a three-part series relating learning, teaching and cognition to theoretical models. The purpose is to explain how children and adults learn. I will explore the psychological and social influences as it applies to your child’s education. I will keep the jargon and acronyms to a bare minimum. My intention is to provide parents and teachers with sound, research-based suggestions for helping their child learn in a manner that best fits his strengths. Each person learns in a unique fashion. Our job as parents and teachers is to help students understand why they do what they do, and how to use specific mental tools to increase their ability to learn simple and complex concepts. 
Constructivism-Making sense of the world through connections and building knowledge upon what we know or the alternate title- If I have to sit through six hours of lectures, I will pull out my hair!
Constructivism is based on the principles that learning occurs when children are actively connected to creating their knowledge. Children do not learn best when they sit passively and listen to a teacher spew facts and figures. The students use prior and current knowledge to make sense of what they are studying. A good example of constructivism in action is reflected in a fifth grade science lesson. I asked students why manhole (or sewer pipe) covers are round. I could have explained the possible answers and moved on to a different topic, but that may or may not have allowed the students to build knowledge that will be stored in their brains. Instead I gave them cardboard, coffee cans, construction paper, tape and various other supplies to help them support their hypotheses. Through their understanding of basic shapes, geometry and rudimentary engineering, the students hypothesized (guessed) that an object that is a circular shape cannot fall in a hole of the same size. Any other shape, a square for example, could be turned on its diagonal and dropped into the hole. The second answer, one I had not anticipated, is that the cover has to be round because the pipes are cylindrical.
Over the last 16 years in the classroom I continue to observe in awe and excitement when a child finally “gets it”. There is a great satisfaction seeing new learning and connections take place.  On the flip side I witnessed many youngsters struggle with learning. I’ve seen tears, anger and frustration.
I have tried dozens of different strategies to help struggling learners. I have done the same to help gifted learners accelerate and I have worked with a mix of strategies for all of the students who traverse back and forth on the continuum of self-efficacy.  I know I stated I would not use teacher jargon, but self-efficacy is a critical term. I want all parents and students to have a solid grasp of what it means, how it works, and how understanding the psychological impact it has on learning. This term will weave its way through my first article and it is beneficial for all of us to have a clear grasp of the concept.
Self-efficacy is a term that describes how confident a student feels about his potential to succeed in a given task. Some researchers claim that the more confident a student is about a subject, say math, the better he will do.
Of all the strategies I employed with students, I found that the most successful way to get them challenge themselves intellectually is based largely on how they think about themselves and their chances of success. Teachers try to code and secretly label the various ability groups that we corral students into, but it doesn’t matter. They all know who (or think they know) the smartest and weakest students are. That in itself is enough to inhibit a love of learning. Children are consequently self-conscious about their academic ability that it restricts them from truly challenging themselves. I believe this stems from three things: The first is the incorrect assumption that failure is bad. The second is the incorrect assumption that the speed of knowledge acquisition relates to higher intelligence across all disciplines. And the third is that most, not all, of the teaching styles in our schools are delivered with the “average” child as the focus.

School Goals
There is a massive push at the federal, state and local levels to rapidly change the way teachers teach and students learn. The traditional, teacher-directed, student-passive manner that began in the industrial age has not changed much. You would be hard pressed to not find students sitting in neat rows facing a teacher who is standing in the front of the classroom. The teacher lectures and delivers information to the students who in turn show their understanding by answering mostly low-level types of questions such as recalling facts. The student who has trouble reading does not do well in this environment, nor does the student who learns rapidly, nor does the student who learns best if he can touch things, move around, ask a ton of questions, and make connections. That student is sometimes referred to as ADD, ADHD, hyper, fidgety and so on. I get fidgety if I sit quietly for more than 15 minutes too. Our district is combating poor teaching with building a strong knowledge of good teaching skills to classroom teachers. Diversifying the manner in which children are taught strengthens their ability to learn.

Parent Activity and Theory in Action
So how can your knowledge of constructivism and self-efficacy help your child in the classroom? We’ll explore this concept in two areas. The first thing you can do is help your child understand that failing does not mean he is a failure. Smart people ask many questions. The second area I want you to focus on is how people learn. There are decades of research conducted and documented by some of the world’s leading educational theorists. These researchers have painstakingly observed children to determine the myriad ways in which they learn. One such researcher is Jerome Bruner.
Jerome Bruner, who shares a birthday with my wife, just turned 97 years old on October 1st. He is a leading educational psychologist and has developed theories on how people create and retain knowledge. Bruner (Presno, 1997) believes that children learn by building a base of knowledge and connecting new concepts. He strongly believes that learning goes beyond the school walls. That true learning can only take place when children see how everything interconnects and applies to the real world. Bruner states that teaching and learning should go beyond the curriculum and standards. It should be not be limited to basic facts and memorization. Learning should be constructed through experiences and connections. Children should build their knowledge through a rich and dynamic learning environment. I will give an example of this from my experience as new elementary teacher in the late 90s.
It was common practice for fourth-graders to study the different regions of the United States. Some of you may remember “helping” your child with their cardboard reports. The students were required to memorize the state capitals in their regions throughout the course of the school year. That’s fine. I have no real problem with that. A few years later I visited a 7th grade social studies class. They were studying state and national capitals. What a waste of time. This is one of those things that are nice to know. Aside from trivia games, what are the intellectual benefits of knowing the capitals of Malaysia, Benin and Sao Tome? I argue that there are no benefits. Bruner, I believe would support the notion that children can learn this and other facts if they see the importance, how it applies to other things, and if they have a vested interest in learning it. If a child finds out that his grandparents emigrated from Liberia, he might develop a strong desire to learn all about that culture, the country and possibly the capital. This knowledge is not learned in isolation. It matters. Other children may learn particular capitals, but I bet they may confuse whether it is a city, state or country. That is clear evidence that they were only learning basic facts for the sake of learning basic facts.
A great way to learn about regions, states and capitals that Jerome Bruner would approve of would look similar to this: Give the student or a group of students a geographical region to study, maybe the northeast U.S. The students would select an area they are interested in. The teacher sets up events with other students across the region to interact with each other. This could be done low-tech with activities such as writing and getting pen pals, or it can be done high-tech where students Skype or video conference with other children across the country. Students could have prewritten questions and learn about locations from primary sources, not just text books. The students are actively engaged in learning that they construct. They are not simply the receptors of knowledge via a teacher’s lecture or text-based assignment.

Final thoughts
Constructivism is one example of how people learn and retain information. Learning is a complex process that is affected by many external and internal influences.  Building your knowledge of how children learn- will help you- help them. If you have any questions or feedback, post a reply or comment in my blog and I will gladly respond.