Improving Practice Activities to Support Exceptional Learners

Sunday, 3. August 2014

Supporting Exceptional Learners with PracticeExceptional learners require specific services or support in order to reach their full potential in school. Some categories of exceptionality include students with learning disabilities, English language learners, and highly capable, among others.

Improving practice activities is one approach for supporting exceptional learners and it may be done in several ways, not the least of which is to present new information in comprehensible units, sometimes called chunking. As a general rule, most learners remember seven new pieces of information, plus or minus two, at one exposure. However, new information is more effectively assimilated into a learner’s schema when it is introduced one piece at a time. Before each new piece is presented, teachers take steps to ensure mastery of the previous piece.

Along with segmenting practice into comprehensible units, frequent review improves practice activities, especially when content is complex. Indeed, complex content should cause teachers to anticipate more errors and provide more guided review. Although there is no perfect prescription for when to begin review, a benchmark approach is one or two days after initial encounters with new information.

One reason content is challenging for students is that it may contain similar ideas, concepts, or skills, which are easily confused. Some examples include immigration and emigration, metaphor and simile, associative and commutative properties of math. Separating instruction of similar elements may reduce confusion. For example, teaching qualities of isosceles triangles one day and scalene the next, analogy one day and anecdote the next, Romanticism one day then expressionism the next, proteins then carbohydrates, armistice then peace treaty.

Nevertheless, once students master knowledge and skills of related elements independently, it is helpful to bring them back together to show their relationship to one another. For example, elements may be organized hierarchically, by location, or within systems. Graphic representations, such as Venn diagrams, concept maps, or figures are effective for summarizing relationships.

Acquisition of complex knowledge and skill may require students monitor stimuli and coordinate responses simultaneously, such as serving a volleyball for accuracy, using a particular brush stroke to create texture, playing notes on an instrument at specific times, or writing support paragraphs in defense of a thesis. Preteaching component parts of complex performances enables students to manage and master stimuli and responses discretely. For example, practicing stance before striking the ball, moving the brush before applying paint, playing the note independently before adding other instruments, and writing topic sentences before outlining the whole paragraph.

Another strategy for improving practice effectiveness is to teach easier information first. This approach may be chosen when there is significant risk students will lose confidence and thereby disengage from exerting effort to learn new information. Caution is advised however, to avoid saving all the most complex learning for last, which may subvert the benefits of teaching easier information first.

One result of effective practice is increasing fluency or improved automaticity, which is the ability to do things with reduced effort. Automaticity means students require less time to respond to questions and prompts in practice scenarios. Designing practice activities, specifically review, should account for students’ increasing automaticity and thereby require less time and leave cognitive capacity for introduction of new information.

Carnine, D. (1989). Designing practice activities. Journal of Learning Disabilities 22(10), 603-607.

Education Change Motivated by Crisis

Wednesday, 2. July 2014

One of the characteristics of the history of American education is crisis and underlying culture as a motivating force for change.

An early example of this is the Old Deluder Satan Act, established in Massachusetts in 1647. The law required townships with at least 50 families to hire a community member to teach the town’s children to read and write.

According to the original text, the law was to prevent Satan from deceiving townsfolk by keeping them in a state of ignorance regarding the Holy Scriptures; a quote from the law states, “it being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.”

The belief was that without a personal knowledge of the Holy Bible people would be deceived, but the act also served a secondary purpose, which was to rally citizens to pay taxes to educate town youth.

Another, more current example, is the National Defense Education Act of 1958. This legislation was initiated by the federal government as a response to the threat of Soviet scientific and technological superiority, as exemplified with the successful launch of Sputnik in 1957.

According to the act, “Congress hereby… declares that the security of the Nation requires the fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women. The present emergency demands that additional and more adequate educational opportunities be made available. The defense of this Nation depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from complex scientific principles.”

Familiar outcomes associated with the National Defense Education Act include student loans for college enrollment, improvements to math, science, and foreign language instruction, an increase in guidance counseling and achievement testing; additional research to improve instructional media, such as television and radio, and an expansion of vocational education.

Yet a third example is A Nation at Risk, written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which was formed during the administration of President Reagan. Terrel H. Bell, then Secretary of Education, was tasked by the president to report on the state of education in America. After 18 months of work, the 18 member committee delivered the report titled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

The report began with “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” A Nation at Risk

The assumption that America was once unchallenged in economic, scientific, and technological endeavor is debatable, and certainly a statement made to galvanize political will for education change.

The report goes on to identify problems and solutions in the area of curricula, performance expectations, use of class time, and teacher quality. It should be noted that most of the commission’s recommendations were ignored, such as lengthening the school day and increasing teacher work contracts from 9 to 11 months. One recommendation which was embraced from the 90s onward, was use of standardized tests of achievement as a source of data for setting up accountability schemes to assign praise and blame to teachers, schools, and school districts.

Old Deluder, National Defense Education Act, and A Nation at Risk are three examples, among others, showing education change is at times effectively motivated by crisis, or at least the perception of crisis.

Characteristics of Effective Feedback

Monday, 7. April 2014

Some define feedback as information provided by an agent, such as teacher, peer, book, parent, or even self which is used to close the gap between current and desired performance. While feedback may be given by an external agent, it may also be intentionally sought or experienced incidentally by the learner.

After receiving feedback, learners may close performance gaps by increasing their effort, motivation, or engagement. Students are more likely to take steps to close the performance gap when the intended goal is clear, when the teacher and students are committed to achieving the goal, and when students believe the goal is achievable.

Feedback given does not guarantee it will be received. Students may accept feedback, modify it, or reject it. For example, students may ignore feedback and abandon the associated goal. Alternatively, students may accept feedback but confuse the goal it is associated with. In the same way, a student may receive feedback but lower the goal it goes with. Abandoning, blurring, or lowering the goal eliminates the performance gap, but without increasing achievement.

According to Hattie and Timperley (2007), effective feedback must answer three major questions for a teacher and students.

What is the goal?Feedback
What progress is being made toward the goal? and
What learning activities are needed to make more progress?

The question of, what is the goal, infers that there is a clearly articulated objective, or target. The goal tells what type of performance is desired and it directs feedback and remediation efforts. Although including a goal for each lesson is necessary, having one does not ensure achievement. For example, not all learning experiences begin with a goal, since discovery, exploration, or creation may be major elements. Alternatively, the lesson may have many goals, or sometimes the goal changes depending on available resources. Applying a solution may inspire new goals or evaluation of the process, specifically, advantages or disadvantages of one method over another. In summary, goals may be renegotiated across learning events, but feedback for closing an achievement gap begins with an understanding of desired performance.

The question, what progress is being made toward the goal, tells the teacher and students about current progress, or how they should proceed. Content for what progress is being made is relative to the goal, prior performance, or previous success or failure.

Answering the question, what learning activities are needed to make more progress, should include enhanced challenges, or building self-regulation skills, or increased fluency, or greater automaticity, or investigation of information that is not clearly understood.

Hattie and Timperley (2007) also suggest levels of feedback, including task, process, self-regulation, and character.

Task feedback tells whether work is correct or incorrect, sufficient or deficient. It focuses the knowledge and skills associated with a task, and on remediating errors. For example, task feedback tells the learner to write more information for a report or to recalculate a math problem for accuracy. The criterion for task feedback focuses on the task, and how close the performance comes to description of desired task performance. Task feedback is more effective when students have misunderstandings or faulty interpretations, not major gaps in knowledge or skill.

Process feedback focuses on helping students develop or apply strategies for completing or fixing a performance. For example, a teacher says “please edit this section of your paper by elaborating on each of the descriptors listed in class.” Process feedback infers that the task is deficient in some way, while the content tells the student about what to do next.

Self-regulation feedback focuses on increasing students’ commitment to the task, self-direction, sense of control, and confidence. It aims to improve skill in conducting self-evaluations or increasing self-efficacy. A written comment for developing self-regulation is, “your paper shows you know the three key features of supporting a claim, now reread this section of your paper to see whether you have incorporated these features.”

Character feedback is directed to personal characteristics unrelated to the performance of the task. For example, saying “that’s an intelligent response, well done.” Character feedback may be positive or negative, but it is usually recognized by its omission of information which the learner can use for completing or fixing a task. Feedback about character is less effective in comparison to other types since it influences self-concept which may not translate to learning gains.

More feedback does not translate to more effect, since the impact of feedback depends on several factors, such as complexity of task, the level of feedback, and student receptivity. In fact, students who display significant errors or misunderstandings may be better served with more instruction and practice, rather than comprehensive feedback.

Many students view generation of feedback as the responsibility of the teacher or someone else. However, enduring achievement results when students adopt internal feedback systems that actuate self-monitoring strategies.

Finally, students must be committed to the learning goal in order to receive and respond to feedback. Commitment to the learning goal may be secured by elevating its importance from authority figures, such as teachers or parents.

Reference: Hattie, J. & Timperley, N. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. doi: 10.3102/003465430298487

Characteristics of Scaffolding and Activities for Using it in Classrooms

Monday, 27. January 2014

Scaffolding is a metaphor for an approach to teaching which refers to the way temporary support is provided by one person to another for purposes of learning. Scaffolding describes interactions between expert to novice, teacher to student, or knowledgeable peer to less knowledgeable peer. There is no exact definition of scaffolding, or consensus about its central characteristics, but most agree that it is predicated on the axiom that learning is often guided by others.Scaffolding as an Approach to Teaching

Lev Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory serves as the theoretical backdrop to scaffolding. One element of socio-cultural learning is the Zone of Proximal Development, which is the “range of achievements that includes tasks that learners cannot accomplish independently, but can accomplish with assistance.”

Although scaffolding is often discussed in terms of the relationship between expert teacher and novice learner, scaffolding supports is based on communication between expert and learner, not transmission of information. Communication between participants is active, constructive, it adjusts to need, and tends toward common understanding. These characteristics have led some to suggest that scaffolding is a derivative of one-to-one tutoring.

Research about scaffolding includes different definitions of it and different emphasis of components of socio-cultural learning theory. One common model for defining and describing scaffolding includes contingency, fading, and transfer of responsibility.

Contingency is used to describe the way the expert adjusts or supports the learner. Selecting and deploying effective contingencies depends on knowing the learner’s current level of ability. Acquiring an understanding of the learner’s current level of ability is accomplished through assessment. The integration of selecting contingencies based on assessment information naturally links scaffolding to formative assessment and the two are often discussed together.

Fading is the gradual withdrawal of contingencies, or supports. Fading occurs as the expert observes that the learner is becoming competent.

Transfer of responsibility refers to the learner’s internalization of new knowledge or skill so that there is a change in cognitions or affect. Transfer of responsibility is also directly related to the learner’s control over subject matter and perceptions of self-efficacy.

Scaffolding may be done in the context of classrooms in many ways, so many in fact that categories are used to discuss scaffolding strategies. Commonly referenced categories include feedback, hints, instruction, explaining, modeling, and questioning.

Providing feedback is giving information about the learner’s performance, focusing on learning goals, progress toward meeting those goals, and identifying resources required for making more progress. An example method for generating peer feedback is Expert Groups, where the teacher instructs a handful of students on a task, skill, or activity, then those specially trained students are assigned to groups to teach others.

Providing hints, such as giving clues or suggestions, advances the learner’s performance, but in a way that does not provide the entire solution. Cooperative Paragraph writing, where students take turns writing sentences to compose a paragraph, is an example activity that uses peer-generated hints.

Instructing means sharing information, or showing the learner what to do. A Comparative Input Chart is a form of instruction, based on comparison, such as recording the similarities and differences of types of animals, exercises, or pieces of art on the same poster or section of dry board.

Explaining is providing more detail or elaborations to improve clarity. Explanations may also address why the learning is important. Pictorial Input Charts show an illustration related to subject matter, with captions. The teacher uses an outline and illustrates the chart across lessons, adding information over several days as students observe the illustration taking form.

Modeling means showing or demonstrating some behavior for the learner to replicate. Team Task Posters are an example of modeling. A Team Task Poster is especially effective when the task is complex or has multiple steps. The teacher lists one or two tasks to start, but then adds more tasks over time.

Asking questions involves the learner in active listening and thoughtful responding. Inquiry Charts are used to record student questions or comments about a topic for later reference.

Some contend that effective scaffolding requires social and emotional learning by attending to the learner’s sense of belonging and identification, both with the teacher and nearby peers.

One strategy for addressing sense of belonging is ensuring a positive classroom environment. For example, eliminating putdowns and giving positive reinforcement. An activity to address promoting a positive environment is teaching students social skills, perhaps by using a T-Graph, which lists the social skill with a student-generated definition at the top, while the columns describe what is seen and heard as the social skill is used.

Another strategy is ensuring students perceive the classroom as a place where making a mistake is acceptable. One way to do this is by reframing failure by identifying positive aspects of performance.

A third strategy is adapting curricula to fit student interests and special talents. Although it is impossible to do this all the time, it can be done on occasion. The occasional opportunity for students to integrate their preferences, creativity, or exercise their unique talents and gifts, provides engaging variation and relief from the predictability that may result from over-emphasis of standards-based teaching.

Scaffolding that attends to cognitive and social-emotional learning enables students to progress from novice to expert. The tenants of socio-cultural learning also suggest that once novices attain expert knowledge and skill, they are then able to contribute to the learning of others. Taking full advantage of scaffolding means integrating cognitive and social-emotional supports, along with adopting the perspective that students are expected to work with their peers to learn together.

Organizing Units and Lessons: An Exercise in Sorting Labels

Thursday, 5. December 2013

Nomenclature represents the basic language system of a discipline. It involves devising and applying labels according to conventions established by the guild. Many labels persist after a formal name has been applied. For example, hydrochloric acid is also called spirits of salt, acidium salis, or muriatic acid. However, hydrochloric acid is the official name according to rules of chemistry nomenclature.

Education also has a nomenclature, although few agree that a formal naming system exists. Nevertheless, many terms have persisted over time such as planning, instruction, and assessment. Other terms seem to change as each new generation applies its unique set of values and understandings to the process of teaching and learning. This is especially true for labels associated with unit and lesson design. ForOgranizing Units and Lessons example, in 1918, Franklin Bobbitt used objective and training experience as synonyms for what some educators nowadays call learning target and academic task. In 1946, Ralph Tyler came close to establishing something like nomenclature by using terms such as objective, instruction, activity, and assessment. Forty years later, Robert Mager contributed familiar terms like instructional objective, performance rate, and assessment criteria to the expanding glossary.

Since the initial efforts of Bobbitt, Tyler, and Mager, the number of labels for describing unit and lesson planning have increased dramatically. Educators may design a lesson according to an intended learning outcomelearning goalinstructional objective, or learning target. Units of instruction may be structured to address a standard, instructional focus, central question, essential question, or central focus. Still other labels are used for dividing lessons and units into sections, such as academic taskexperiencelearning activity, lesson segment, and lesson sequence. Yet even more terms are used to divide the lesson into parts, describing categories of instruction, such as hook, preview, critical input, practice, review, and reflection, among others.

Some of these labels are useful for planning since they articulate how unit and lesson elements relate or group together. Other terms probably confuse communication. For example, some refer to the lesson objective, others the learning target, and still others the goal. Nevertheless, these terms generally mean the same thing when they are used in the context of lesson design.

Examining terms associated with unit and lesson planning suggests that a cohesive nomenclature is absent in education. Although avoiding confusion as a result of inconsistent labeling is impossible, educators may find it useful to anticipate a high degree of variability when it comes to educational terms.

What I Learned at the Blended Learning Conference

Saturday, 13. July 2013

Each day brings new technologies that can shape teaching and learning. Tablets, blogs, moocs, cloud computing, and so on. If history is any guide, some of these technologies will fade away, and some will persist. One innovation which will likely persist is blended learning, which involves combining in-class and online methods of instruction.

The 10th Annual Sloan-C Blended Learning Conference was in Milwaukee this July, and I presented with David Wicks and Vicki Eveland. I also attended several excellent sessions, and here are a few of the things I learned.

Blended LearningComputer Supported Learning – In Europe, educators use alternative terms to describe blended learning, such as computer supported or computer enhanced. Carefully selected titles promote clarity, which is sometimes missing from blended learning, since it has numerous definitions.

Disrupt and Sustain – Blended learning models will disrupt and sustain current approaches to teaching and learning. For example, students requiring daily supervision (e.g. kindergartners) will encounter online technologies blended with in-class activities that sustain traditional instruction. Alternatively, college students living away from campus will take more online classes and attend virtually to disrupt the tradition of seat time.

Learner Characteristics – Assess student characteristics to inform planning a blended course. One of the most important characteristics to assess is the level of student autonomy. For example, 4th grade learners may require more structure in comparison to high school seniors, or college freshman than doctoral students.

Moocs – Early moocs were connectivist (cMooc), taking advantage of social networking applications to link students and teachers interested in the same topic. Alternatively, xMoocs have gotten most of the attention lately, and these include courses administered by Udacity, Coursera, and edX.

Seven Principles for Good Practice – There are numerous models describing effective practice. The article, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education by Chickering and Gamson (1987) include these:  1) frequent student-teacher contact, 2) cooperative learning, 3) active learning, 4) prompt feedback, 5) time on task, 6) high expectations, and 7) acknowledge diverse ways of learning (Chickering & Gamson’s, 1987). These principles are useful for informing blended learning course design.

Success in Blended Courses – Factors predicting student success in blended courses include 1) previous educational achievement, 2) self-regulation, 3) technical proficiency, 4) engagement with course objectives, and 5) reflective thinking. Some of these factors are also associated with success in conventional settings.

Syllabus Jigsaw – Enable students to reconfigure and contribute to the syllabus (or class plan). The hallmark of standards-based reform are long lists of learning objectives pre-selected for students. Why not let students select a few of the standards for focus, and then decide on the assignment and assessment?

Video Captioning – Write a transcript for online instructional videos and add captions, then make the transcript available for students. Taking this step provides access to hearing impaired learners and also provides additional modes for processing content.

Implementing Electronic Portfolios through Social Media Platforms

Friday, 1. March 2013

Most teacher training programs use some form of portfolio assessment. Electronic portfolio keeping provides an enhanced format in comparison to paper. Online portfolio containers are easy to use, free, and customizable. They enable users to search, retrieve, change, link, and organize narratives and artifacts efficiently. One of the most significant advantages of using social media-based portfolios is accessibility. Portfolios are available to users, peers, instructors, and public spectators from any computer at any time. Independent liberal arts schools of education can use social-media portfolios to reduce costs and enhance student competence. Simultaneously, there are numerous types of portfolio keeping activities, which make them useful for showing a broad spectrum of content for a variety of assessment and accreditation purposes.

Although implementing electronic portfolios using social media platforms will vary depending on individual need and institutional requirements, there are some common steps, specifically

1) defining purpose and scope,
2) selecting social media platforms through experimentation and testing,
3) constructing a model,
4) instructing on appropriate use,
5) and integrating questions and prompts to elicit quality portfolio entries.

Defining the purpose and scope of the portfolio is particularly important, especially since there is evidence to suggest that teacher candidates associate electronic portfolios with online diaries, specifically, as a platform for sharing inner-dialogue through descriptive writing.

During implementation, instructors and administrators simultaneously identify strategies for prompting high-quality portfolio entries. This activity depends on purpose, discipline, and context. However, some general strategies applicable to teacher education include

1) writing prompts in the form of questions or statements,
2) item analysis,
3) case analysis,
4) self-evaluation with supporting evidence,
5) and peer assessment.

Program administrators using social media portfolios should also train teacher candidates to follow digital citizenship principles and FERPA guidelines by eliminating the following kinds of content

1) personal information such mobile phone number and birth date,
2) student images and identifiable work samples,
3) school placement and mentor teacher name,
4) overly critical narratives, and
5) errors relating to mechanics (i.e. spelling and grammar).

Readers interested in learning more about implementing electronic portfolios using social media can read and view

Denton, D. W. & Wicks, D. (2013). Implementing electronic portfolios through social media
platforms: Steps and student perceptions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks
17(1), 125-135.

Closing the 2 Sigma Gap

Tuesday, 15. January 2013

Banjamin Bloom, probably best known for Bloom’s Taxonomy, contributed significant research and theory on other educational topics, including the effects of tutoring on student achievement. In 1984, Bloom wrote an article titled The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. Bloom found that one-on-one tutoring moved students two standard deviations above the mean on achievement measures when compared with conventional approaches to instruction. My first response to this claim was “of course one-to-one tutoring is more effective in comparison to traditional settings.”

2 Sigma

However, an important feature of Bloom’s research is whether teachers in conventional classrooms can replicate characteristics of one-on-one tutoring. Bloom proposed investigating five areas to answer this question, including

  • Improve student processing of conventional instruction
  • Improve organization of instructional materials
  • Facilitate positive peer interactions
  • Improve teaching by providing attention to all students
  • Integrate higher mental processes

A variety of educational research has been produced, showing effective practices in each area, from the effects of feedback to engaging students metacognitive reflection.

Additional solutions are emerging from instructional technology. One of the newest of these is an “adaptive learning system that supports personalized learning” (Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, 2013). Adaptive learning systems adjust according to a student’s response to information gathered across learning experiences.

Two examples of adaptive learning systems include Wayang Outpost, a tutoring system for geometry and statistics developed at the  University of Massachusetts, and a digital tutor to train information technology specialists in the U.S. Navy developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

There is No Master Plan

Tuesday, 4. December 2012

I had the opportunity to meet Massie Ritsch, deputy assistant secretary for External Affairs and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, among other Department staffers, in December – 2012. Massie, along with his colleagues, was attentive and friendly.

I came away from the meeting with a fresh perspective about the Federal Government’s involvement in education, which is primarily state funded. One of my observations is that there is no master plan. Although ESEA (reauthorized as NCLB) identifies influential legal structures, entitlements, and compliance activities, the importance of communication and local cooperation are critical to sustaining successful change.

Clear communication is difficult to achieve. Initiatives begin at one end of the country, Washington DC, and are discriminated to state governments, districts, administrators, and finally classroom teachers. The intent of these initiatives is altered as they circulate from one entity to the next. Context and purpose are stripped. Teachers often feel that they are on the objective (business end) of these efforts, without the benefit of understanding ideas as they were formed, spoken, and written by original authors.

Another observation, one that was a little inspiring, was that our educational leaders need our help. Without the commitment of locals (teachers, administrators, and parents) on the ground to follow through, reform efforts will be relegated to the “graveyard of lost ships,” or worse, future reform efforts will be met with cynicism (a some are already). A critical element of local cooperation is leadership. Schools are full of leadership opportunities since teaching and learning is a social endeavor. It might be an oversimplification, but without teachers taking the lead in their schools, not much will change.

A Few Tips for Enhancing Instruction Through Technology

Tuesday, 11. September 2012

I presented a few ideas to a mix of Seattle Pacific University faculty at the Autumn retreat at Camp Casey on Whidbey Island. The presentation shows simple to complex techniques for enhancing pedagogy through technology, such as collaborative learning with cloud computing and traditional desktop publishing methods. Some of my favorite ideas include the less than $100 online class, Screenr feedback, Google Drive coauthoring, and kiosk PowerPoint presentations.

According to International Society for Technology in Education, one National Education Technology Standard for Teachers is to Model Digital Age Work and Learning. This seems to suggest that students learn how to use technology to prepare them for work life as well as for enhancing learning. This is easy to do when students engage in traditional computing methods, such as using calculators, writing a paper on word processing software, and creating presentations. The meaning and relevance of this standard when cloud technologies or new technologies are used is less clear. For example, it is unlikely that students would create and maintain an electronic portfolio for work, although such a technology could be used for learning. Alternatively, personal or business web pages are useful for work, but perhaps less so for learning, unless as a container for presenting a class project.

Nevertheless, online technologies do enhance collaboration, both in the workplace and educational settings and collaboration is a critical element of human activity, regardless of context.

If the presentation is expanded, viewers can access online Screencast instructions by pressing the play button in the lower right corner.