Learning Preferences Cards

Students need opportunities to practice Global Competencies like students5Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Innovation, and Influencing across networks. This is why working in teams gives them the opportunities to practice these skills and to get coaching by the teacher and others. Yet one challenge with teams is the fear that some students will dominate, while others will stand aside while the others do all of the work. While supporting teachers at a Project Based Learning school in Michigan, this challenge came to a head when a teacher team wanted to abandon using student teams altogether. “It doesn’t work!” They stated with a look of determination that one gets from being an eyewitness to seeing something go wrong in action.

I started to suggest that each student needed a role, like project manager, editor, and–but the team leader cut me off by saying that they already did this, and it did not help. So, I asked them to describe what does a class session look like from the beginning to end. The leader sighed, but decided to indulge me. At the beginning of class the students gather in their teams for the initial instruction. When they start working on their project, one person gathers the necessary materials and brings them to the team.

“Is that a role or responsibility?” I asked.

“It’s one of the team roles,” was the response. “That’s the Logistics person.”

“Are the people in this role typically the ones not helping with the project work?” I asked.

The teacher team looked at me with astonishment. The leader asked, “How did you know?”

Once the logistics person brings the materials. Their job is done until the end of class, when they must return the materials. Each team member needs an academic responsibility. This gives them value and purpose throughout the learning and product work within the project.

How do you ensure that every student on a team will be active and contribute to the ongoing work and final outcome?

One part of the equation is to ensure that every student has an academic responsibility, or a qualitative role. Whether the learner is gifted, struggles with the subject matter, or has an IEP for Special Education support, they need to believe that they can contribute. Also within the team, the students have to believe that each person has something academically to contribute.

Learning Preferences Cards (PDF handout link) is a great strategy for collecting perceptual data about students’ strengths in subjects and approaches to learning. Students self-evaluate so that their perspective is recorded about themselves as learners. Once completed, teachers can add annotated information about the students that further informs them on team formations that can lead to success with Global Competencies and learning standards.

Learning Profile Cards 

  • Target Grades: All
  • Applicable: Differentiated Instruction, Project Based Learning, and Team Formation
  • Activity Time: 15-20 minutes
  • Materials: index cards and a pen or pencil (one per student)

Activity Steps

  1. After passing out the index cards to each student, have them write on the back of the card their contact information. At a minimum, this would include their name and personal phone number.Figure 1: Back of the Card
    Learning_Profile_Card-BackSometimes the phone number the student provides is not the one on file with the school, and is usually a more reliable connection. The purpose of this information is for when student teams need to contact an absent member about work that needs to be submitted. Since it appears that students use email far less, having other means of contact is important within Social Media.Figure 2: Front of the Card
  2. The next steps will occur on the front of the card. In the center, students list 3 to 4 interests that they have outside of school. This could range from recording themselves as they play video games to talking or texting with friends. This information helps for showing context of subject matter to things that matter to students. Also, when designing projects and lessons, I’ve created learning experiences around the interests of 1-2 students in the class. There are those “Triage Patients” who if we do not make learning meaningful, they will fall further and further behind, until they eventually lose faith in the education system and stop trying.
  3. In the top left corner, students list the subjects and skills. For each, rate them from a 4–I’m great at this skill/subject and I love it–to a 1–I’m not very good at this skill/subject and I do not like it. Some teachers use a wider range such as an 8 pt or 10 pt scale. That’s fine so long as the range is an even number. Otherwise, students tend to choose the middle number such as 3 out of 5, or 5 out of 9.It’s also important to note that the score is far less important than if the student rated themselves in the top half or bottom half. This speaks volumes about their perception of themselves, which we’ll see repeated with the other categories to follow. When I learned that some of my students rated themselves low in my content area, that indicated that I would need to mediate their self-perception of their skills if I hoped for them to make a strong effort.Saving the best for last, this information informs on what academic strengths students may have. A student who struggles in Science or Math, but is average to good at writing, becomes the Writing Editor. Their job is not to write the papers or scripts. It is to facilitate the reflection and revision process that each person must do on their own work. Someone who knows social media or video recording becomes the Media Editor. Their job, through facilitation, is to help teammates evaluate how messaging is being effectively done of content to media. As you can see, each role has an academic responsibility. Their role is one of facilitation–monitoring and tracking their team’s work using the academic criteria list and/or guidelines (ex. rubric).
  4. The other corners are for tracking learning styles and personality inventories. Students use the 4 pt scale to self assess for each category. Teachers can choose any style/inventory that they find to best meet the learning needs of their students. It’s important to track at least two. This helps to avoid typecasting students into one learning container. Such as, John is a Visual learner. Well…that probably depends on the situation. More importantly, how would John rate himself. For each learning styles/inventory categories used, the teacher needs to describe them in terms that relates to students. For example, if I asked for directions to the nearest coffee shop, a visual learner would give directions as they saw themselves making the trip.I strongly recommend using the Internal and External reflection styles listed in the bottom right corner. Some people need to process their thinking along before they are ready to share or act. While others need to think aloud their ideas as means to make connections. The team make-up between these two styles can have positive implications when deliberately included in formation decisions.

Once the students complete the cards, the teacher collects them to use for making teams and differentiating lessons and projects. Because the students completed them, teachers may add or update information on the cards based on observations.

For early elementary students, teachers might bring in parents or student buddies from an upper grade level who acts as the younger students’ secretaries, and transcribe their answers. Thus saving time.

PBL Celebrated @MNPS Dupont-Hadley



In this week’s ASCD Smart Brief, an article from the Tennessean is given national attention: Dupont-Hadley of Metro Nashville Public Schools was recognized for a project based learning unit where 5th graders studied cancer: “Student’s two-time cancer survival inspires lessons.” The experiences of one student was a catalyst for extensive work by the entire 5th grade. The topic had a personal connection that made the interdisciplinary concepts and skills relevant.

There are some amazing points that the article does not tell…

1. First PBL unit of the year with a real world partner

In their first project ever, the staff used an instructional model that ensures standards-based learning and Global Competencies (aka 21st Century), that enabled their students to have authentic learning experience that included a partner (Hospital) from outside of the school building. The staff followed a PBL format from training and systemic support by the Buck Institute for Education. The temptation is to play it safe and implement a project that stays inside the classroom. The 5th grade team hit a home run on their first project of the year. They involved the hospital into the project so that the students saw that they were working with real people beyond school, and not just a scenario. Their learning and efforts had an impact on real people. In my experience, all staffs have the capacity to do this on their first project, and some do. Yet many let fear of implementation stop them from moving forward with a partner or client outside of school–usually saying, “The students may not be ready for it.” At Dupont-Hadley, the students did the Cancer project and rose to the high expectations.

2. Dupont-Hadley has other grade levels doing the same

GCC1The other grade level teams have some interesting projects either implemented or in planning. The 5th grade team opens a door into the type of work that all students at Dupont-Hadley are experiencing. Having supported with the teachers as they developed their PBL designs, it’s awesome to witness their incredible thought process and commitment to ensure that the students learn standards in context with real world connections. Expect more news to come in the future about the various community connections that students are impacting with their learning.

Metro Nashville Public Schools has standards-based PBL as a system wide initiative. There are great things happening everywhere in MNPS. Stay in tune to their students’ work.





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Goal Setting

January 1 is nearly here. It’s a time when many fitness club attendance increases. Already, as one of my closest friends has commented, the classes are getting crowded and available exercise machines are harder to find. As annoying as this time is for devotes of fitness, my friend notes that in a month the crowds will disperse. The machines will become more available again.

This migration through fitness is an annual occurrence. People make resolutions. They might buy exercise products–note how commercials at this time are flooded with exercise equipment and club memberships–and/or resolve to take a few exercise classes. Those who survive past the first couple of months will likely have goals and a plan for support, which may include encouraging friends and/or trainers. Result: Get fit.

planning_cogsWith the start of schools in January, this is an opportunity for staff and students to set goals for their academic resolutions, and create a plan that includes a support network of peers, colleagues, and coaches.

Here’s what it can look like for students…

Step One: Reflect on accomplishments

It’s important to have individual time to think about what progress each person has made. Finding growth, however small or large, is critical for students to understand that they can effect change for themselves. Consider having students journal or make lists. Possibly, have students share their ideas with the teacher, and maybe talk with family at home. Look at student work to find the areas of success. Even students who may not appear successful at this stage of the school year will have grown. Help every student find those successes.

Step Two: Imagine oneself by the end of the school year

Students need opportunity to see themselves as they aspire to become. Looking 3 to 5 months ahead, what do they see themselves doing with regards to school. The focus could be partly academic–“I want to be a better writer” or “I want to understand Science like my friends”–and partly relational skills such as Collaboration, Communication, Networking, or Perseverance–called General Capabilities in Australia. What students eventually put to paper, may on the first draft be broad, and possibly appear unrealistic for some, but that is fine because they are future thinking. This active work helps them see themselves as capable of doing.

When my daughter wanted to try out for the junior high basketball team, having no training and four days to prepare, I could have told her there was no chance of her making the team much less playing. I’d coached junior high and high school basketball. There are many skills to know and build into muscle memory to be competitive. That weekend, we worked on the basics–defensive stances, passing skills, and some shooting form. She made the team. During the season, we continued to practice the skills, added new ones, and studied the offensive and defensive plays. She got to play in most games, usually in the second half for a couple of minutes at a time, but she and I were happy for it.

Step Three: Set Goals

Meet with each student about where they are and where they want to be (Step 1 & 2). Help them set concrete goals. Make them S.M.A.R.T.:

  • Specific: Identify the skill(s) the student wants and needs to develop. Instead of “I want to be a better writer” it would be “I want to be better at using details and organizing a clear beginning, middle, and end.”
  • Measurable: Coach the student on identifying the elements for what the skill will look like when done well. Help them design a criteria and/or rubric, or provide one that is understandable to them.
  • Attainable: Break down the skill(s) into checkpoints for progress of quality, so that the student can track their own growth. Later, plan instruction and reflection opportunities that will help the student attain the checkpoints.
  • Realistic: The mapping of support that occurs for Measurable and Attainable will help students see what can be accomplished in the time remaining of school. It’s critical to be flexible with the work as some students will surprise us by their acceleration of learning, while others may uncover obstacles that create struggle and more time needed for practice and coaching. For example, a student who sets the goal of writing a novel, when he struggles with complete sentences and organization, may start work on short stories and essays (around his interests). Once completed, these could be be turned into ebooks (size does not matter) and posted online for anyone to download at places such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Result: Published author = motivation to learn more of the craft of writing.
  • Time bound: Establish a end date when the skill(s) will be demonstrated at the level determined between the teacher and student. Again, be flexible in that the learning could happen sooner, or the target might need adjusting because of unforeseen obstacles.

(For more info on S.M.A.R.T. Goals here are two places to start: A | B)

Keep the number of goals limited to 1 or 2. There is obviously so much more that they need to accomplish. For this exercise we want them to get into the practice of goal setting and follow through. Once they see themselves making strides, such planning and follow through skills will transfer to other needed areas. Meeting with students individually is time consuming. Some teachers might balk, giving the reason that such time takes away from instruction. This work by students is part of their critical learning. Coaching students through this goal setting process encourages them to take ownership of their learning. When a student struggles, the goal setting experience becomes a means to help them with the curriculum. Not meeting with each student leads to learners practicing their traditional role of passive participation, where they do not take charge of their learning, because no one has coached them on how, before expecting them to lead. Or another way of looking at it, when an adult goes through an evaluation of their professional work, they expect that the supervisor will meet with them during the goal setting and review of work. This is standard practice in the educational and business communities–so why not do the same for our students. Give them the same edge as we get for our professional success.


Step Four: Write a letter to your future self

Have students compose a letter to themselves. The purpose of the letter is to encourage themselves to continue their efforts, and to describe how they will feel after they are successful in making progress towards their goal. Seal the letters in envelopes. Give the students their letters in 2-3 months to open as a source of personal inspiration.

Final Thoughts…

It’s hard to attain New Year’s resolutions alone. That’s why so many aspiring workout junkies flag after 1-2 months. Having a plan, supportive coaches, and belief in oneself is so important. The above strategy is a means to help students develop experiences that includes all 3 of these elements. It’s great for students. It also can be inspiring for you, if you try it for yourself.

Happy New Year!

Minecraft for Learning, pt. 2

Minecraft for Learning, Part 2:

(Follow me on twitter at @jmccarthyeds to stay up to date on following posts.)

mc_building_top In the last post, I mentioned that minecraft is a way to include student voice into their learning. Students can help teachers make the connections by describing how they spend hours doing any of a variety of tasks. Minecraft is an open ended, unstructured experience. The core game has no missions or quests to complete. Players play in Survival mode or Creative mode.

Survival mode is just as it sounds. You appear on a randomly generated world and biome–such as plains, desert, arctic, forest, or a combination. With no resources other then your brain and hands, you explore the terrain, gather resources, and build shelter. Capture or grow food for energy and to avoid starvation. Oh, avoid or fight spiders, zombies, and skeletons. Or die.

Creative mode gives you unlimited resources to construct any structure you want. Build an elaborate home, a roller coaster, a farming community, or perhaps a city in the sky or deep underground. Monsters will roam but they can’t see your avatar, nor fight back when you decide to clean house.

Both modes offer a wealth of opportunities for learning curriculum (of course there are more wrinkles to the game that enhances the opportunities). Here are some examples for the two modes:

Survival Modemc_inside

  • History is full of explorers, pioneers, and generals. Both groups ventured into unknown territory, seeking wealth, land, or understanding. The dangers they faced from starvation to hostile people, animals, and other organisms do not quite have the impact on paper to students then if they were charged to explore a biome in minecraft and build a thriving settlement. If students maintained a video or written journal about their experiences each session, consider the connections they’d make from reading primary source documents of the journal accounts of those who they study in history.
  • The life cycle of plants and trees can be explored as students figure out how to grow plants, and use the results to sustain themselves and care for farm animals.
  • Explore technology and innovation to create tools and construction from raw materials. Different combinations of materials lead to a variety of combinations tools and objects of value.

Creative Modemc_Creativemode2

  • Design communities modeled after historical and geographical areas of study.
  • Create designs of scaled models of architecture and/or land formations to provide a 3D view for a proposal and/or presentation. Craft a written description of the process and/or proposal that uses the model to illustrate key factors. This opens up Math, Engineering, English, and Social Studies.
  • Create designs that demonstrate art  principles. Consider incorporating Math concepts, and possibly be inspired by art from different cultures.

These suggestions only begin to demonstrate how Minecraft can be incorporated into learning. Minecraft is not just a game you can play solo–be dropped into a world and survive. It is a multiverse. Anyone can establish their own server with their carefully constructed world, and open it up to anyone–anywhere–to play. This will be Part 3 of this exploration of Minecraft.

One parting thought: A key to success of connecting education with Minecraft is to involve students in the decision making process for how best to include the game. Give them a goal, and let them figure out how to demonstrate it in Minecraft. Also, explore the game yourself. Before Minecraft, my kids played Terreria, a 2-d version with only survival mode. I learned much from joining them. I learned even more when I jumped into the world of Minecraft where they became my teachers. Let the kids become your guide to brand new worlds.

Minecraft for Learning, pt. 1


Updated: August 2, 2016

Earlier this year, I was asked how Minecraft can be used in education. At the time, I’d done some digging in just that topic because my kids were deep into the game, both solo and through home networking. Recently, I’ve been asked to share more. So in the next several posts I’ll explore just how Minecraft can be used in and outside of school. All it takes is an innovative teacher who is not deterred by the phrase, “that can’t be done here.”

Minecraft for Learning, Part 1: Student Voice

(Follow me on twitter at @jmccarthyeds to stay up to date on following posts.)

Minecraft has high potential for learning. While there are already formal structures being introduced for putting Minecraft into classrooms…

There is something at risk of being lost, which should lead the innovation: Student Voice in direction and design. The appeal of Minecraft, as I’ve observed with my 14 and 16 year old teens and their friends, is the open unstructured play. Everything that they build is based on their “need to knows” and inquiry. For example, my son and his friends explore and settle territory that they can gather resources for establishing an economy for trades and sales with other players. My daughter designs architectural wonders that could be set up in urban or rural settings, as well as creating whole new living spaces in seeming uninhabitable places such as in desserts or on water. The places always include a theme of self-sustainability. Last year, my son had a project whose final product was a presentation about a civilization. He came up with the idea of building the civilization in Minecraft. He wanted to build and then video record a tour so that people could view the tour or visit the place on the server (Did I mention that anyone can build a public server with Minecraft? They’re all over the place. My son built one and then used it to teach younger children how to play Minecraft). He convinced his student team of the merits for the idea. He pitched the idea to his teacher, who said no.

They would love to bring their Minecraft experiences into school, but on their terms. One example that this could work is for a teacher to identify clear academic learning criteria that must be demonstrated in a product, without defining the product itself. Let the students figure out how that would look in a virtual environment.

Here are other resources by different individuals who share a passion for Minecraft:

Driving Question Basics

Driving Questions Basics

Have you ever attended a meeting where the outcome was unclear? You knew or hoped that by the end of the meeting some result would be achieved that would validate the time spent being there. This reminds me of the movie, Karate Kid, the 1980s version, where the main character wants to learn karate to defend himself. Instead the sensei has him performing odd jobs such as sanding the floor, painting the fence, and waxing the car. “Wax on. Wax off,” The sensai said as he went about his business, leaving the student to his chores. The young man works these chores for long hours over four days before he loses his patience—not sure if I could have waited as long as he did—and demands from the sensei why was he doing chores for the teacher instead of learning karate. The sensei demonstrates how the repetitive movements, now built into the student’s muscle memory, were actual basic defensive martial arts moves for blocking. While this makes for dramatic revelation in a story–the scene still rivets me–if the student had known the purpose of the chores, how much harder would he have paid attention to his form?

When starting a unit of study, topic, or Project Based Learning (PBL) unit, students need to keep the end in mind. That is to say, what are the learning outcomes and how will they demonstrate their understanding as a product, proposal, and/or idea that a client audience could benefit. An effective driving question (DQ) captures this big picture, and more. A driving question connects the key learnings to the final product or performance at the end of the PBL unit, topic or unit of study. Students should be able to answer the DQ by what they produce for the final assessment.

There are three key elements that makes for a strong driving question:

DQ Tri Elements

  1. Unpacks significant content and concepts, or “What are we learning about?”
    A DQ that is answered by the final product/performance must address key concepts, understandings, and facts around the unit of study. Students need to recognize the content and its purpose to their learning and life. Substantive content makes the exploration worth starting.
  2. Makes learning meaningful to student’s lives, or “How is this useful to me?”
    The concepts and skills should be made contextual to a student’s world. Otherwise, students will complete assignments with a checklist mentality. Get the work done so I can do what I want to do, or, “Wax on. Wax off.” Understanding how the subject relates to their lives or understanding of their world, helps students build a framework or a schema for making sense of how everything fits.
  3. Connects learning to an authentic client audience beyond the school, or “Who benefits if I do this?”
    Often, authentic projects and performances will have an audience who thoughtfully gives of their time so that the students have someone to share their learning. The audience could often be experts or knowledgeable of the field of work that the students are addressing. Many times the parents attend, which is a great support to students. These can be positive experiences, but very one-sided. When the audience includes clients of the students’ work, the relationship becomes mutually beneficial.Clients have a personal interest in the work by students. The products, proposals, and/or recommendations have a direct impact on the client’s needs. A DQ captures this need and gives students a real “face” to the work they embark on.

Example Driving Questions

Secondary grades

Social Studies/English Language Arts

How can I advocate for culturally sensitive assistance to a current issue that’s provided by my community?

Client: A social agency such as the Red Cross or a relief organization – implementation guide

Physics/Algebra II

Design a roller coaster that’s fast, thrilling, and unique to the park.

Client: Local theme park – design proposal and working scale model


Middle School grades

English Language Arts/Pre-Algebra or Algebra/Technology

How can we help local businesses prosper by marketing themselves to other communities?

Client: Local businesses –Marketing Plan that includes social media

Science/Health/ Math

How can we design and promote a healthy and delicious lunch menu for our school/district?

Client: Food Services and students – Week Menu proposal


Elementary grades

Social Studies/English Language Arts – K-1st grade

How can we help new kids feel welcome?

Client: Families – School guide/directory plus digital welcome guide

Science/Math/English Language Arts – upper grades

How can we inform our community about the dangers of severe weather?

Client: News stations, University Scientists, and families – PSA and/or multimedia guide


You probably recognized other features of a Driving Question:Influencing across networks

  • Open-ended
    There is no one correct answer, or a single path to answering the question. Open-ended questions can not be found via a search engines like a closed-ended question.
  • Student-Friendly
    The question needs to engage the students. If too formal, some students may find it disconnecting to their interest. The 1st draft is often in teacher language, which is fine as way to ensure effective unpacking of the significant content. Note: I had these questions vetted by one of my children who attends a PBL school.
  • Big idea question or a challenge statement

Driving Questions are powerful tools that gives a compass for the project or unit journey. It helps teachers align activities to the essential learning. DQs provides a framework for students for the “why” of the learning activities (“Wax on. Wax off.”), and connect to the final product, proposal, and/or idea.

Karate Kid – Daniel’s Training “Wax on Wax off” PG language at beginning.

Riddle Answer

So last week, I posed this riddle:

“You’re standing in a room with two doors. One opens to instant death, and the other leads to life. Standing in front of each door is a robot guard. With no other way out of the room, you must choose a door to enter. You may ask one question, which each robot will answer. One robot is programed to always lie. The other robot is programed to always tell the truth. What question could you ask that will help you identify the door to life?”

As promised, here is the answer:

“If I asked which door opened to Life, which door would the other robot point to?”

The robot programmed to always lie would say the other robot is going to pick the door that opens to death, and would point to that one. The robot programmed to always be truthful would say the second robot is going to pick the door that opens to death (because the other robot is programmed to lie). With both robots pointing to the same door, that means that the opposite door leads to life.

Can you come up with a different answer?

Riddle me Collaboration

“You’re standing in a room with two doors. One opens to instant death, and the other leads to life. Standing in front of each door is a robot guard. With no other way out of the room, you must choose a door to enter. You may ask one question, which each robot will answer. One robot is programed to always lie. The other robot is programed to always tell the truth. What question could you ask that will help you identify the door to life?”

opendoor4opportunitiesThere are variations to this riddle. I invite you to solve this riddle–without looking up the answer. Feel free to share ideas with others. Post your answers or questions, and I’ll respond. If no correct answer is given in seven days, I’ll share mine.

This type of logic riddle, as told to me by my daughter, is a type of puzzle for groups of students to learn how to effectively collaborate and communicate when working on tasks. Global Competencies like Collaboration and Communication, among others, are essential skills needed to successfully navigate the complex challenges of today and tomorrow. Anyone graduating high school after developing Global Competencies during their K-12 experience will have a competitive edge over other graduates when entering college, career tech, entrepreneurship, and/or the work force.

Once in Delaware, a district official shared a story about a business that recruited employees with physics background. Only Ph.D. degreed individuals were considered for the complex work. What they discovered was that for every dollar spent on marketing, two dollars has to be spent training these brilliant scientist in effective social skills to communicate and collaborate well with others.

We assume that professionals know how to communicate and collaborate; yet where do they get formal training or coaching prior to joining the work force? In classrooms of colleges and the K-12 arena, students may get “opportunities” to use these skills, some more so than others. How often during these experiences do students use the language of these skills? Where do they become metacognitive and think aloud about what they are doing and evaluate the effects? Like adults, students don’t know what they don’t know—unless coaching and self-reflection is used to raise their awareness.

Logic riddles and team builder tasks are ways to engage students, and other teams, into a thoughtful process to reflect on what makes for good collaboration and communication skills in a social setting. After doing any such activity, the debrief is where connections are made and anchored into practice.  Here are some resources containing ideas for tasks that engage students with challenges to learn and reflect on their use of Collaboration and Communication:


Offers a wide range of team builders that can lead to rich dialog during the debrief. There is a linked category for Collaboration and Communication.


Several types of scenarios are provided here that leads to hard decisions being made. Participants learn much from the experience about themselves and others regarding collaboration and communication. I did one of these as part of a job interview…and was hired. Wilderdom has other activities as well that may well prove useful for a reflective conversation.

National Geographic Adventure

Want to make your own scenario? Or perhaps have students create their version? Check out this site for inspiration. Could be a project that incorporates skills and objectives in English and Science.


This site has an eclectic offering of team builders, like teampedia. May find some variation of ideas that could be used to build interdependence.

In my son’s Physic-Comp, he’s learning about fixed and growth mindset. It’s led to us conversing about the topic and reflections about how we think of ourselves (communication). The exchange of ideas has, I believe, influenced both of our thinking (collaboration). My hope is that a similar dialog is taking place in class, mixing the personal with the clinical. The opportunity for embedding the language of Global Competencies in his class is high.


January 15 Ground Hog Day?

In the movie Ground Hog Day, Bill Murray is a reporter covering the annual event where the ground hog looks for its shadow. Each morning he wakes up to relive that day, stuck in a perpetual cycle that matches his boorish behavior. His journey is what makes the comedy entertaining.

On January 15, 2014, Congress must approve a budget that keeps the government operational. While it’s difficult, perhaps nearly impossible, to set aside the politics, I’d like to take a moment to share one impact of the last government shutdown.

A 3rd grade team for an elementary school in Virginia, including four classes, planned a Project Based Learning Unit that partnered with a national zoo. The zoo asked the students to help them decide what kinds of animals from different biomes that they should create a home so that visitors could see and learn about new species. The students were asked to recommend an animal, recommend how to design a space that would be similar to the biome and habitat of the creature. The skills that would be developed in context of this challenge would be studying animal habitats and food cycle, conducting research, reading fiction and non-fiction on related topics, composing writing pieces, and presenting findings and proposals. These are the type of learning experiences we want our children to have, where significant content is learned in a meaningful and purposeful fashion. The students will remember the skills and concepts long after the project is complete because they will have the memory of making a difference for an authentic public audience.animals

In early October, as part of the project kick off, the students were going to visit the zoo. They would learn about how the zoo staff care and provide for the animals’ needs based on their original habitat. It was an opportunity for students to ask staff questions that could influence their research and proposals. As a National Zoo, the admission was free, which made the valuable trip possible. Education budget cuts limited where teachers could take students on field trips. Cost of a bus and an entrance fee would have made the trip impossible.

The day of the field trip, the government was shut down, except for essential services. One service considered non-essential was the zoo. The trip was cancelled. The teachers did rally and adjusted the learning experience where students started their research and each class drafted a biome where they placed animals and fauna. It was a good alternative. The students were excited, and when interviewed spoke about the project task—helping the zookeepers come up with the next biome and animals inside to support—and they could already share a basic understanding of biomes and habitats. But the field trip was an opportunity for them to engage in collegial conversation with zoo staff about the needs of the various animals.

Some might think a field trip is not a big deal in the scope of a government shutdown. Now that’s the last one is over, the field trip can be rescheduled. Timing is a powerful consideration. Doing the field trip early would have given students a great experience with making strong connections of content to purpose at the start of the unit. Students get to interview their client for valuable details, which also creates a scaffold for learning the planned content. Moving the field trip to another time while possible decreases its value as a learning tool to becoming just another trip that’s disconnected from curricular value. Timing is everything for teachable moments.

If educating our youth to think critically and make connections to how content and skills are important to know in the world outside of classrooms, than a government shutdown has significant implications. Come January 15, lets hope for a budget deal that keeps the government operational. A repeat performance of this fall’s showdown is not a Ground Hog Day that our children can afford.

Homework Balance, Part 2

In my first installment about Homework, I referenced Karl Taro Greenfeld in “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” regarding his 7 day experience doing the same homework as his daughter received at school. His article strongly showed how homework can turn a student’s school day into a 10+ hour work day, or 56+ hour work week, including weekends. The National PTA recommends that his 8th grader should have a total of 80 minutes of work per school day, instead of the 3+ hours she currently has.

However any of us believe about what a daily homework load should be, there is another element of homework that is perhaps the core to determining the value of homework: Quality of Purpose.

What purpose does homework serve—or possibly, what purpose should it serve?

What purpose does homework serve? Karl hints at this when he talks to the teachers about the workload, and with varying success, gets a reduction by some. But what if the homework is not all necessary? Or, what if the assignment is too complex for a student’s readiness on that night? There have been several studies about homework that find that good value can come from the effort. Some of this research is explained for easy understanding in the classic book, Classroom Strategies that Work. It’s further addressed in an Ed Leadership article on ASCD: “The Case for and Against Homework” by Robert J. Marzano and Debra J. Pickering. As with the book, the article offers the significant impact that homework can have on learning–when it is purposeful, time appropriate, and practice for feedback. Depending on the study, the percentile gains of homework on learning ranges from 8% to 28%.

In essence, homework is a great vehicle for feedback to students about what they do and do not understand from instruction. It’s even better when customized or differentiated. Here’s how it works:

  1. Content is delivered.
  2. Students grapple with the concepts and/or skills under teacher supervision
  3. Formative assessment data is collected by teacher to determine understanding by all students.
  4. Support instruction is used to support students who struggle and those who demonstrate quick mastery.
  5. Homework is assigned, sometimes differentiated based on steps 3 and 4.
  6. Students use homework to practice the skills and concepts. Build their understanding.
  7. On the next day, teacher and students review the homework as a formative assessment to gage how much more support and practice students need before progressing to the next concept.

Steps 3 and 4 are critical to supporting and meeting student needs. To not do those steps is like expecting someone–after one instructional session–know how to:

  • drive a car or truck using a stick shift
  • create inquiry-based, project-based Learning unit
  • perform as a character in a play with excellent communication and acting skills
  • understand how to graph an equation for a purpose
  • write a persuasive article that includes a counter argument

You get the picture. While some few can perform at a high level after one session, most of us mortals need opportunities to explore through practice. Homework is that opportunity to practice, and steps 3 and 4 help ensure that the work is targeted and customized (differentiated) based on the student’s skill level.

When some teachers say that there is no time to do steps 3 and 4, homework becomes a game of Roulette—no one knows where the ball will land, more off the mark than on.  The irony is that the time spent checking for understanding during the lesson saves time later because students are assigned work that they fits their needs. Otherwise, students may be given work that is too complex to their current skill level, and they become confused and lose confidence. This results in a wider gap of understanding that leads to more instructional time needed to “catch up” students with the curricular pace.

What purpose should homework serve?math

Another aspect of homework that happens is its role as practice or assessment. While homework can serve both purposes, the primary role is typically practice. Students need opportunities to “tryout” the skills taught in class to see what they understand and what—at first—they “knew” and realize they did not know. At the next class session, a review of the work gives teachers formative feedback as to what needs remain to provide additional support. When looking at the effect size implications shared earlier, practice followed by feedback can have a significant and positive impact because students have a safe environment to explore and take risks in grappling with the task. Some of my children’s best learning experiences have come from teachers who understand the emphasis and power of practice. Students develop confidence to take risks and explore. They learn perseverance when the teacher, after reviewing the work, expects the students to address the errors either individually or in collaborative groups. These experiences prepare students to do better on the graded assessments.

Sometimes this “practice” message gets muddied when homework is graded for correct answers, before students have the chance to check their understanding and get scaffold support from the teacher. Testing should only occur when students are expected to have had substantive support to be able to demonstrate understanding of the concepts or skills, not when they’ve just been introduced on the same day. One of my kids intuitively understands the writing craft quickly and easily. Math is not so easily picked up. My wife and I give lots of support at home as best we understand the concepts. Once, when we encouraged our child to circle the practice problems that were the biggest struggle so as to ask the teacher for guidance. The problems were not done at home because no one understood them well enough to offer support. The homework was scored for accuracy. The problems left blank to get support were marked incorrect and awarded a zero.  Message: homework is a quiz of what students pick up from that day’s lesson, and should result in 100% correct answers.

To be transparent, I do not believe in scoring homework. Feedback is all that’s needed. For those who argue that points need to be assigned else students will not do the work, my grudging suggestion is assign points for completion, which could be part of an assessment of perseverance or grit. This could encourage students to do all the work, and get the needed practice, but not penalized them for not having all the correct answers. Why would they if the concepts were just recently introduced?

Ask any group of educators about how many believe that students learn at different rates and paces. The answer I get from groups is an emphatic “Yes.” Not one person has ever said that all students learn at the same rate and pace. Given this common belief, how can we fairly grade students for initial work on skills and concepts? The result creates grade fog where what student’s real knowledge is obscured by grading that does not match the expected outcome. For example, one of my kids was earning a C in English. Homework scores were very low due to accuracy of the answers—all work was fully completed. On the test based on the content that included the homework, my child scored an 86%. Which is the stronger indicator of understanding—the homework assignments or the summative assessment covering the content spanning all of the homework assignments?

A good formative learning activity is to allow students revise their homework after reviewing the concept and/or skill that they struggle with. This gives them a chance to show what they really understand. I remember my high school Algebra class. My teacher would give us homework and grade it the next day for accuracy. When he reviewed the homework with us, I understood my errors and could complete similar work with 100% accuracy. Unfortunately I had no opportunity to show that I “got it” because the teacher moved on to the next concept. Such practice is a disservice to getting accurate data on where our students are at with their skills. For those who are very concerned about standardized test results, data accuracy is important for predicting pass rates and what students still need. For students, an accurate message is critical to building and maintaining their confidence in the subject for tackling future work.

For teachers who understand the logic of homework as practice of the day’s instruction, or review for an upcoming assessment, the change in process is easy to do, and is a powerful message to supporting a positive learning culture. Purposeful homework helps students grapple with the learning targets. As a practice session, teachers can determine the workload amount that is narrowly focused and requires the minimal time outside of class so as to stay under the recommended time frame of nightly workload.

For parents who understand the logic of homework, the conversation with teachers becomes clearer, although not always easier. Inquire about the purpose of the homework helps gauge if the workload is appropriate. Teachers may not always agree with your argument but at least they will be able to give a clearer message. If homework is graded for accuracy, this is a more serious problem. Unfortunately, as I noted before, such a practice is an accepted option at some schools, and is viewed as a teacher’s pedagogical philosophy. You may not be able to convince them of the obvious error of this approach, and should not use up valuable time and relationship capital. Instead, focus on the supports that the teacher has in place or should put in place to give your child the differentiated help so as the learning happens.

At the end of the day, everyone wants the students to succeed. Striking a good balance with homework purpose and workload can lead to a positive learner experience.