Quo Vadimus?

When you begin to burn out on your research topic, where do you think you will move on to?

My focus is on gender and education. I am specifically focused on advocacy for boys in education because it seems to me that is where the biggest damage is being done now. However, of course, I work on gender-based issues and strategies for both sexes. I don’t think I’ll burn out on this until more attention gets focused on this subject or until it becomes clear that I’ve done all I can do. There are some very committed and capable leaders in this area and I do hope we can effect some change.

My second area of interest is expanding the acceptance of John Ratey’s research (see Spark) on exercise and learning. He has some fascinating things to say about the influence of exercise on brain functioning and some very specific suggestions and practical examples on how it can strongly influence educational outcomes. That might be my next focus.

Another subject that hovers in my peripheral vision is SES and education. This is such a very big topic. SES itself is a huge topic and one where open discussion is not very common or safe. However, it seems probable from the reading I have done that much of educational failure is actually and unavoidably caused by SES-related factors beyond the power of any educational system to fix. There is so much to this topic and it is so important because by not addressing it we are condemning millions of people to an unnecessarily difficult life. This would be a sad, dangerous, and challenging subject to pursue. However, honestly, until we stop think of poverty as something to be “prevented,” I think our society will continue to “create” poverty in the name of preventing it.

A safer subject but closer to the “darkside” is the pursuit of computer-driven learning strategies/tools. In a standards-based, standardized testing-based world, it is probably possible to largely replace teachers with very well programmed computers that drill the “essential” information in a fraction of the time. There are interesting questions about whether computers can even create the open-ended learning promoted by art and research and general inquiry. They probably can. Anyway, I am certain there are dark forces moving out there to automate our classrooms. I would be tempted to follow that fascinating train of inquiry, if only to bring “light” to the process.

To conclude, I am always drawn to areas that have big problems that have relatively simple solutions. These “80/20 Rule” situations are among the very few where, I believe, major improvement can be made in the human condition. Until very recently, I wasn’t too concerned about the human condition. Now, however, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what I can do if I put my full effort into making the world just a little bit better in areas where I have some wherewithal.


Gender-based Educational Strategies

I think there’s no question that gender-based strategies need to be taught to teachers and incorporated into classrooms just as VAK, multiple intelligences, and many other tools for understanding and reaching students more effectively are. I think teachers who say, “I teach to every child individually” are on the right path however they do need the education to fully comprehend what those distinct personalities require.

In particular, boys are frequently very much of a mystery for many teachers (though girls have their gender-based learning challenges too, obviously). So for me, the key is getting teachers to teach to coed classes using gender-based teaching strategies (amongst others). However, one of the leading writers on this subject, Leonard Sax, has apparently moved to advocating single sex classrooms and perhaps schools. I think a lot is lost, particularly in single sex schools. But there are certainly times and situations where differentiating by sex might help (for example in middle school when there is already so much change going on).

Here’s a table that shows gender-differentiated scores on the English Language Arts portion of the California CST. Note pretty uniformly 8% fewer boys than girls are scoring proficient or better.

Boys – Girls            
Adv & Prof 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th
2009 -8% -5% -8% -8% -7% -9%
2008 -7% -5% -7% -6% -6% -10%
2007 -9% -8% -7% -7% -5% -9%
2006 -7% -6% -8% -7% -6% -10%
2005 -6% -6% -7% -7% -6% -10%
2004 -7% -6% -7% -8% -6% -10%
2003 -7% -7% -8% -8% -5% -8%
Average -7% -6% -7% -7% -6% -9%
Median -7% -6% -7% -7% -6% -10%
Adv & Prof 8th 9th 10th 11th Average Median
2009 -8% -8% -7% -9% -8% -8%
2008 -9% -8% -8% -8% -7% -7%
2007 -9% -10% -8% -8% -8% -8%
2006 -8% -8% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2005 -8% -10% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2004 -8% -9% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2003 -8% -8% -8% -8% -7% -8%
Average -8% -9% -8% -7% -7% -7%
Median -8% -8% -8% -8% -7% -7%

The Trouble with Boys

Can you think of an example of an instructional strategy that would not be developmentally appropriate for a given age group?

There is growing doubt about teaching reading and writing skills to kindergarten boys. For whatever reason, boys lag girls in both verbal processing and fine motor skills by, on average, 1 1/2 years at 5 years old. We wouldn’t try to teach most 3 1/2 year old girls to read and write but have no trouble trying to make boys with the same abilities as those young girls to do the same. This has profound implications. Early difficulties in school can create learned helplessness and a lifelong negative perception of both reading and school in general. It is obviously far more complex than this and boys have significantly more nature-based hurdles in school than just this one. But the effect is clear. I put together a 4 minute, totally fact based and fully referenced video, for anybody that’s interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oybR4PcQ7u8.

There are several solutions to this phenomenon. One is easy: start boys who appear likely to have these issues in kindergarten at 6 instead of 5 years old. There are also a variety of teaching techniques that particularly suit the gender-specific learning needs of students. As just one example, boys do considerably better if their verbal faculties are recruited first through storyboarding or other non-verbal, imaginative exercises.

Instructional Strategies

What criteria would you use to determine developmentally appropriate instructional strategies?

The CalTPA handbook lists a series of developmentally appropriate instructional strategies. They are broken down into age categories: Grades K-3, Grades 4-8, and 9-12. They are included in TPE 6. Here are some examples from the CalTPA Handbook, Appendix A:

Grades K-3

  • understand how to create a structured day with opportunities for movement
  • design academic activities that suit the attention span of young learners
  • instructional activities connect with the children’s immediate world
  • draw on key content from more than one subject area
  • include hands-on experiences and manipulatives that help students learn
  • teach and model norms of social interactions (e.g., consideration, cooperation, responsibility, empathy)
  • educational experiences that help students develop more realistic expectations and understandings of their environment
  • special plans for students who require extra help in exercising self-control among their peers or who have exceptional needs or abilities


Grades 4-8 

  • build on students’ command of basic skills and understandings
  • provide intensive support for students who lack basic skills as defined in state-adopted academic content standards for students
  • teach from grade-level texts
  • design learning activities to extend students’ concrete thinking and foster abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills
  • help students develop learning strategies to cope with increasingly challenging academic curriculum
  • assist students, as needed, in developing and practicing strategies for managing time and completing assignments
  • develop students’ skills for working in groups to maximize learning
  • build on peer relationships and support students in trying new roles and responsibilities in the classroom
  • support students’ taking of intellectual risks such as sharing ideas that may include errors
  • distinguish between misbehavior and over-enthusiasm
  • respond appropriately to students who are testing limits and students who alternatively assume and reject responsibility


Grades 9-12 

  • establish intellectually challenging academic expectations
  • provide opportunities for students to develop advanced thinking and problem-solving skills
  • frequently communicate course goals, requirements, and grading criteria to students and families
  • help students to understand connections between the curriculum and life beyond high school
  • communicate the consequences of academic choices in terms of future career, school and life options
  • support students in assuming increasing responsibility for learning
  • encourage behaviors important for work such as being on time and completing assignments
  • understand adolescence as a period of intense social peer pressure to conform
  • support signs of students’ individuality while being sensitive to what being “different” means for high school students

Steping First into the Concrete

How do SDAIE strategies illustrate the need to teach from the concrete to the abstract?

When language is an issue, working in the concrete is essential.  Whether this means using pictures or student-centered demonstrations to instruct, anything that lets ELL’s demonstrate their capacity independent of language is helpful.  Success is the best scaffolding and beginning in the concrete is the best way to scaffold success for ELL’s. 

Díaz-Rico (2008) expresses it this way, “The challenge is to use concrete means to introduce abstract ideas (teaching with hands-on materials, visuals, and demonstrations to lead into those ideas that are difficult to demonstrate or that require more oral or written skills)” (p. 240).  As she says, once the foundation of the abstract concept is laid with these concrete means, it becomes easier to move towards the abstraction of higher understanding.  The challenge is to avoid the trap of talking more into the silence.  SDAIE includes many strategies for concrete, student-centered teaching.  The trick is to use them.

Expressing the same idea, Rothenberg & Fisher (2007) says, “science lends itself handily to concrete, hands-on experiences that build background knowledge, providing a foundation for abstract thinking and for reading and writing about academic topics” (p. 209).  Once again, we see that ideas tend to be best learned from concrete to abstract.  This is particularly true for learning with language challenges.  Fortunately, art, science, and math all lend themselves to working in the concrete.  The various aspects of ELA are more challenging, but pair, triad, and group-work add scaffolding and support to the process.  Techniques like storyboarding can be very helpful in any of the linguistic domains.  Regardless of subject, every effort must be made to begin in the concrete and use that foundation to move towards abstraction.

The idea that learning moves most easily from concrete to abstract is an old one.  Echevarria, Vogt, & Short (2008) remind us that Bloom’s Taxonomy “was formulated on the principle that learning proceeds from concrete knowledge to abstract values” (p. 102).  Using concrete learning strategies for ELL’s and non-ELL’s is just good teaching.


Díaz-Rico, L. T. (2008). A course for teaching English learners. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Rothenberg, C., & Fisher, D. (2007). Teaching English language learners: A differentiated approach. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Landspeeder Math

In a prior post, I advocated using movies to connect students to their studies.

For me, history comes alive in fiction. When I’ve read a story or seen a movie about a past time, somehow the factual material becomes connected and relevant. I know that’s how it works for my daughter too. She has American Girl dolls and each one comes from a particular period in American history. There are also novels about those girls in that era, based on diaries of real historical girls. She can tell you about living in the Blitz in London or what ocean liner travel was like in 1912. Now she says to me, “Daddy, I want to read more history.” This from a 1st grader.

On a related subject, there is a lot of enthusiasm in a classroom that usually goes untapped. I know Star Wars is huge amongst the boys of my daughter’s class. It seems to me that hooking lessons and rewards into the Star Wars universe would be hugely enrolling and captivating for those boys. Yet I’ve never seen it done. “If Luke Skywalker is racing his landspeeder against five of his friends, how many Tatooine landspeeders are in the race altogether?”

This one is trickier but, with no encouragement at all, many of the boys in her class (like, I think, most boys everywhere) love to draw battle scenes when they have free time. Those battle scenes are usually complex and frequently nuanced. I know the implied violence bugs a lot of teachers, but it is fantasy violence, not rehearsal of real warmaking. And it is a vast supply of energy and opportunity discarded in most classrooms today.

Less Art in the Classroom!

In my view there is too darned much art coming out of kindergarten and 1st grade.  Ok, I am sort of kidding but what I mean is that, as parents, we receive a blizzard of art.  It’s too much to honor or use in a meaningful way.  As a parent volunteer, I find myself in a mad rush to get the students to complete the artwork before the station/center ends.  They get rushed and have no fun and the quality of the art suffers, all to make sure more art is produced.  Anybody else see a problem here?

Every so often, the kids do a “peak” project.  My daughter just made a five foot long stuffed paper dolphin.  She did the dolphin art; parent volunteers cut the dolphin shape, traced that shape onto the back paper, and stuffed the dolphin.  Therefore, the kids did a picture and, really, the adults made the art.  It’s cool and beautiful, but it isn’t completely “hers.”

I am not sure where the mad rush to create disposable art comes from.  It is easier, I suppose, to make disposable art than to work with the kids on truly meaningful art.  And, true, quantity seems to beat quality for many Americans.  However, in my classroom I will try to only do meaningful exercises, art or otherwise. 

Creating a dolphin from start to finish, painting it (two sides, not one), cutting it out (fine motor skills), stuffing it (different fine motor skills plus judgment about how much paper, where, plus – believe it or not – the structural and learning benefits of stuffing them with near skeletally placed and shaped stuffing) all makes for a truly wonderful, memorable, and celebrate-able project that should deservedly be kept and preserved for “the ages.” 

I think teaching quality by taking the time to do art “right” is a far better lesson for the students than, what, churning out high volumes of low quality art?  Really, what is the benefit of rushing through one (or two) pieces of art a day?  Working for two, three, or more days on one fine piece of art is the same amount of art practice as the same hours spent on disposable art.

Sure, there is need for practice pieces to hone cutting skills or drawing skills or color choices or whatever.  Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be better to do those exercises as “practice” so the students truly have the freedom to experiment, make “mistakes,” and build their skills?  Likewise, in practice art, the adult wouldn’t feel compelled to “help” the student do it “right.”

Yes, for me, art will be “practice” work, identified as such and with a particular intent in mind (e.g. cutting), and periodic “peak” pieces that take multiple days and represent accomplishments and even artistic statements of which the students and their parents can be deservedly proud.  

Here’s to less (disposable) art in the classroom!

Cambourne in the Classroom

How may a classroom activity be adapted for students at various stages of language acquisition?  Address evidence of student comprehension and assessment methods.

Many of the techniques that improve outcomes for ELL’s are also good techniques overall.  Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2008) take Cambourne’s “Conditions of Learning” and apply them to the ELL friendly classroom.  These eight conditions are immersion, demonstration, engagement, expectation, responsibility, employment, approximation, and response (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 24).  I will briefly describe their application below:

1.       Immersion – Constantly use all aspects of language (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) to practice English language and content concepts.

2.       Demonstration – Show students the core learning in practice and have them model those concepts as well.

3.       Engagement – Create a safe environment, emphasize the relevance of the material, and teach it at appropriately challenging levels of difficulty.

4.       Expectation – Hold appropriate but high levels of expectation for all students.  Look past language challenges to the full capabilities of each student.

5.       Responsibility – Give students choices, encourage reflection, hold students to high standards of independent performance, and encourage critical thinking.

6.       Employment – Allow students to demonstrate the skills and concepts they have learned.  Explain real world context and value of the concepts being learned.

7.       Approximation – Encourage and reward risk taking.  Embrace “approximately correct” answers as stepping-stones to completely right answers.

8.       Response – Allow for continual constructive and focused feedback from multiple sources, including peers (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 23).

All of these eight principles do double duty.  Not only do they promote powerful learning in ELL’s (and other students), they create better opportunities for assessment.  By recasting learning tasks away from passive into active learning, students’ proficiencies and weaknesses are more clearly observable and more easily remediated.


Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Evaluation?, Part Two

I have been thinking about my post yesterday.  I think it is a mistake for me to shy away from evaluations of my classroom and my teaching. 

I got into teaching to stand for something special.  I will bend every effort to excel and to incorporate the best elements of teaching into my practice. When I am evaluated, some combination of three things will happen.  One, the high quality of my work will be seen. Two, the observer will make suggestions that improve my teaching.  Three, I may meet one of these dogmatists I fear and disagree with some or all of the assessment.  These are all outcomes that can only benefit all concerned.

The tricky one is where there is disagreement.  I have always felt a strong pull to comply with authority out of a desire to be accepted and/or a fear of sanction. However, I have also always had strong analytic skills of my own.  Given that the former instinct usually overrode the later, these encounters would frequently leave me feeling violated and, subsequently, acting out against that authority in some covert (and ultimately self-destructive) fashion.

Being slightly wiser these days, my philosophy is different.  Now, I trust that the best thing to do is to stand for my beliefs, regardless of consequences.  This does not mean being stubborn.  I have a strong intent to be open in all aspects of my life.  However, it does mean that I need to stand for my reasoned beliefs.

I will be respectful.  I will be inquisitive.  I will be open to learning and to improvement  However, if, in the end, I disagree with the advice or assessment, I will stand for myself.  It is possible that this will have negative consequences for me and that is ok.  However, if I am respectful, if I demonstrate a willingness to listen and an ability to change if persuaded, and if my arguments are sound, I am comfortable that these discussions will generally end positively.


Mistakes are, after all, unavoidable. We have only three options for dealing with them.

First, we can work hard to prevent as many as possible.  Getting solid training, as we are doing, is a good step.  Referring back to our texts from time to time would help too.  I find I frequently see things that I missed when I go back to old sources.  As we grow and gain experience, we have more context for the lessons we have been taught and those lessons reveal more meaning.  We can also continue with our professional development and continuing education to increase skills.  With all this training, we simply need to add careful, thoughtful planning and constant self-scrutiny.  By doing all these things, we will reduce our incidence of mistakes.

Second, we can be aware of mistakes when they occur to minimize their damage.  Sometimes this is as simple as correcting a misstatement.  Other times, it actually involves some clean up, perhaps an apology.  Yet, in my experience, the density of mistakes in the world is so high that circling back to ameliorate a mistake frequently causes more problems than it solves.  The best way to make up for a mistake is often to keep moving forward, committing do better in the future.

Third, we can identify and analyze mistakes after they have occurred in order to adjust our behavior and reduce their likelihood in the future.  This is not hard but it does require discipline and the willingness to constantly be reminded of our human fallibility.

The good news is that constantly learning from mistakes is the best way to constantly increase professional competence and outcomes.  By committing to learn from our mistakes, we commit to striving for the very highest levels of achievement for our students.  That is more than worth the effort.