20 December 2011

The GOAL method for improving schools

Greetings, friends!

First, let me beg your forgiveness for my too-long absence from the hallowed (web) pages of the Blaze of Competence. I have been undertaking travels across the United States in an endeavour to examine the most important issues facing education today. Obviously, this should not have kept me from my duties as a contributor here, but it did. I can offer you no explanation, so am reduced to begging for your forgiveness.

Once you have seen fit to forgive me, I beg for your indulgence as I unveil my newest strategy to improve education. In the past, I have focused mainly on behaviour (fitting, as I hold my advanced degrees in the behaviour field). (editor's note: please click the following links for Dr. Johncock's previous writings at the BlazeBlog:NBR, STFU, and the STARS system) However, in my recent travels I realized that across this nation, teachers are focusing more and more on improving the amount of learning that students are doing, sometimes at the expense of behaviour modification. Alas, that is, as they say, another subject for another day. Indeed, even the state legislatures have taken up the banner of so-called "student achievement".

There has been some backlash amongst teaching professionals in the colonies about this new focus on learning. They decry that they must now "teach to the test" instead of being able to teach any damn thing that they want. They point out that the tests are often not very good, and are indeed poor reflections of what students have actually learned. I would counter with the my whole-hearted belief that these tests have undoubtedly been developed by the foremost thinkers in educational theory and method in the several states and that teachers have obviously been given more time than was even necessary to align their teaching to these standards which are tested by these state assessments. That teachers would have the gall to question those in positions of government granted authority who have spent many years in the educational bureaucracy avoiding schools in order to develop these tests strikes me as laughable. In short (and to use an American teen colloquialism), educators should "deal with it".

Alas, my job is not to lecture teachers on what they should and shouldn't be complaining about. My job as a behaviouralist and educational thinker is to provide solutions. After several months of labourious thought, experimentation and revision I am proud, today, to reveal the content version of the STFU method: the GOAL method of meeting state expectations for student achievement. The GOALMOMSEFSA (or GOAL method for short) provides your teachers and students with a simple, 3 step method to improve student learning, and thus improve scores on the vital measures of student learning; state standardized tests.

However, before I delve into those three key steps, let us talk about what the GOAL method means. Yet again, I have (with some input from my crack staff of educational researchers) created an acronym to help both teaching faculty and their charges to remember what the method is all about. In this case, we have decided that two are better than one, and so we have two acronyms: GOAL and AYP. I shall endeavour to explain both of them in the following.

        The GOAL Method 
G - Getting
          O - Outcomes to
     A - Align with
   L - Learning

It should go without saying that we want the outcomes (those invaluable test scores) to align with the learning we and our students are spending so much time on in the classroom. However, all too often what we have taught isn't revalatory to students on their state assessments. To remedy this failing, we here at JET (Johncock Educational Theorationaliztions) have come up with 3 simple steps that teachers and students must take to improve their demonstrations of learning on state tests.

                                     A -  All students and teachers
                 Y - Your responsibility
P - Produce

A - All students and teachers - As with most of my educational theorizations, this one is blinding in its simplicity. All teachers and all students who are going to demonstrate their learning on tests must be involved in this program. Teachers can not miss meetings for any reason. To this end, JET will provide forms to those districts who hire us to have staff complete at all staff meetings to ensure that those meetings have 100% attendance. We will also provide forms for students to complete bi-weekly in each of their core classes (those classes where learning is importantly displayed on the test) to ensure that all students are also participating in the program. We have found that having teachers and students complete forms so that their participation can be tracked is one of the most valuable parts of any educational program for improvement.

Y - Your responsibility - The central focus of both this acronym and this program is that teachers and students have responsibilities to learn material which is on the assessment. It is the responsibility of teachers to obtain sample questions and released tests and then teach that material (preferably to the point of rote memorization) so that when it appears on the test the teacher can be confident that students have learned it. Students are responsible for the actual memorization of those facts and released questions. Certainly, neither teachers nor students should be encouraged to engage in critical thought or subject material which may arise naturally. If those subjects and skills were important, the states' departments of education would have put them on the tests. If those things are not evaluated (it is safe to say they are not) then we should not waste valuable time in our hectic bell-to-bell schedule on them. The amount of time which could be sunk into teaching a skill like critical thought and evaluation could account for several year's worth of memorization of facts for the test.

P - Produce - Once the test is placed in front of students, it is up to them to produce the evidence of learning. Teachers should have spent their year having students memorize answers to the test questions, along with a small amount of test taking strategies so that when the test is in front of them, students can demonstrate their learning as quickly as possible. 

As state tests are always graded and returned with the utmost expediency, several weeks after the test is given, those students who were shown to be deficient could retake the test until they demonstrated mastery. 

I feel confident that by employing the 3 simple steps of the GOAL method, all students in all schools will make great strides in demonstrating the learning which I know has taken place there. Should you wish to contact me, either for further information on the GOAL method, or to book a professional development, please contact me here.

10 December 2011

The Social Network, er, ah, classroom?

Because I'm vain, I run analytics here on the BlazeBlog. (actually, Google runs the analytics, I just look at the information they give me). It doesn't provide an overwhelming amount of information, since I don't really do this to make money or drive traffic to the site. Quick commercial: Click an add, and Google gets paid, and then they pay me. Everybody wins! Anyway, when I look at the information on where you all come to the BlazeBlog from, I'm not at all surprised to find that many of you come here from Facebook.

Why would it surprise me? Everyone and their mothers, literally, seems to be a member of that and the now ubiquitous "social media" sites like twitter. I think I make possibly the understatement of the year when I drop this thesis statement on you: Social media has changed our lives. It has also changed how we teach and how kids learn.

I'm pretty sure it's been a change for the better. Pretty sure.

The Internet is full of stories about teachers who get in trouble over something they posted on Facepagetwitterspace. Students who go without access for even a matter of 10 minutes begin to convulse, they look like crack addicts.

Before I get into a largely arbitrary listing of the positives and negatives of the social media revolution, I think you should be privy to the ways I think that social media has changed our culture and by extension our schools and students.  (admittedly, you could of course just google and figure it out for yourself, but it's my blog, and I do what I want, so I'm going to spell out exactly how I think this revolution has changed our lives.)

1. Social media is, more than anything else, about constant contact and feedback. I think that some sociology pH.d will write a dissertation in the next decade about how the like button changed the world, and I think that dissertation will probably make a lot of good points. Think about it. Sure, social media provides constant contact, but that isn't a huge game changer. Realitically, it just means that you hear from people more often. However, if you think about it, when you were in high school you were in pretty constant contact with your friends: you rode around in cars, you hung out in basements, you made 3-way phone calls. Social media simply serves as an amplifier for those activities.

However, the feedback (be it the like button, the retweet, the whatever google+ has) is what has really changed us as a society. Sure, social media started out as a way to share what we had for breakfast. Now it has morphed into an way for us to get instant feedback on what we do. Don't lie. You like it when that little red box in the upper left of your Facebook lets you know that people are liking and commenting on your words, pictures, or links.  That's human nature. We all want to be accepted and liked. 

For students, this means that they want feedback on what they've done, and how they've done on it RIGHT FREAKING NOW! That's fine, but as long as class sizes stay large it's almost impossible with traditional assessments, unless you're willing to give mostly multiple choice tests, which are very easy to grade quickly (but which tend to do a very poor job actually measuring what students know and have learned). I think we need to move to more innovative ways of assessing, methods which can provide quicker feedback. I think that projects are a great way to do this. The final project can be presented, watched, or read relatively quickly (if teachers are willing to allow formats other than essays), and thus final grades for those efforts can be presented quickly.

Moreover, those projects (again if we're willing to allow for formats outside of the traditional essay structure) can be assessed very quickly in the draft formats. Indeed, teachers can even use social media as a tool to do this. I have in the past assigned facebook pages for famous figures in history. If students friended me with that profile, I would comment or message them with suggestions as they worked. It was a double win: they got that all-important quick feedback, and they fixed problems, leading to better scores. However, there is a concern that all of this positive feedback (the "no dislike button" problem, if you will) causes students to be adverse to hearing negative feedback, which leads us to my next belief about how social media has changed our, and our students' lives.

2. I've written about the problem of everybody getting a ribbon before. Really, most of this post is a rehash of that post. But I think that social media tends to emphasize positive feedback while minimizing negative feedback. If I block someone, or unfollow them, they don't get an email, their news feed doesn't change. However, if I get liked, or retweeted, or get a new friend, I get an email, my news feed changes, I find out. I think that this is an even bigger deal for kids. They are at an age when being accepted is a number one priority. They are very sensitive to criticism. As they live their lives shaped by their interactions with social media, I have found that they are less open to negative feedback. Their either ignore it, declare it to be untrue, or shut down when faced with negative feedback. (Some students take it and make positive changes, but they are rarer now than they were even ten years ago when I started teaching.) Why? Well, I'm not a psychoanalyst, but I suspect some of that comes from the lack of negative feedback they experience every day. I could be wrong. It happens.     

3. Social media is all about sharing. I think that it has caused us, as a society, to be more open to sharing our beliefs and feelings. It has also given us opportunities to share how dumb we are (you're a liar if you don't see some things people put on their facebook pages and judge them. You do.) Because of this, we're all (if we have a relatively open "friending policy") exposed to people with different beliefs and ideas than we hold dear. I think this is great for kids, since it's showing them how to be open minded. Also, this sharing has led to a little something one of my former students put in his facebook feed. He said that no one can be a stripper anymore, because all of our history is public.

It makes a lot of sense. There was a time when you could do work below what you wanted to do. Perhaps not stripping, but maybe a stint working as a Wal-Mart cashier. Maybe you hauled trash. Whatever it was, you could keep it secret from your peers at your professional job. Now? Not so much. How does this apply to schools and students?

Accountability. If you're friends with me on Facebook, you've probably seen the 18 minutes of me teaching in the classroom. That's great. A little embarassing, but great. I'm accountable for that. Kids are the same way. They do something dumb and post about it; people call them out. They can share their creative outlets; bands, shows, writing and people can provide support and critique. Everybody can grow if they really share on social media.

Anyway, about 990 words ago, I promised you an arbitrary list of the positives and negatives of the world of social media from a teaching standpoint. Let's hit it.

The Downsides:

A. Teachers who forget that they're teachers. If you're a teacher, and you're going to act the fool on Facebook, you better lock that puppy down. Because no matter how much you want to channel Charles Barkley, you are a role model. What you put on the interwebs will be found by your students. I've had students present me with letters I wrote to the newspaper when I was an undergrad. Most of those stories about teachers getting fired are when they do something really dumb.

B. The days of your private life being private are gone. If you're on social media sites, you're a public figure. It used to be that kids were shocked to see you shopping for groceries. Now? They probably know much more than that about you. Again, you can lock it down, but they're going to find out.

C. Cheating. Social media has made it easier for kids to share answers. Staff at schools need to be on the lookout, but also to be clever. Don't use the exact same test every year. Change answer options from hour to hour. Better yet, evaluate with tools that neutralize social media cheating. It's hard to cheat on a presentation. Memorizing the order of 5 multiple choice answers is a lot easier.

D. If you have students in your news feed, you are demoralized by their grammar conventions and spelling/word choice issues. tHeY REElly LiKe 2 ShoW hOw uNFaZed bY GrammEr theY R. The good news is, since social media won't advertise you blocking / unfollowing these people, you can do so without damaging their psyches too much.

The Upsides:

1. Social media, as I talked about 1000 words ago with the "Facebook for the famous" example, gives teachers, if they're willing to enter the arena, a way to provide feedback very quickly. Every day you can find a new way to use not just social media but technology in general to provide lighting fast response to students. They can use their phones to answer poll questions from the safety of anonymity. They can email you assignments so that you aren't lugging around paperwork. You can use shared documents on Google docs to revise as they watch.

2. If you and your students are in the same social media circles, you can communicate with them at times that aren't in class. Require students to join a Facebook group, and you can share assignment requirements, due dates, notes, whatever. If parents want to join, even better. Listen, students are going to talk about your class on social media, you might as well facilitate the discussion so that you can see what they're happy with and what they're complaining about. You can be a better teacher by finding out what your students need, and this is the place where they will most honestly tell you.

3. Social media allows you to engage students on their terms. Though we as old people may not feel as at home here, teens can't imagine a world without twitter and tumblr. That's where they go, it's how they communicate. If you're there, and communicating, it lets them know that you care about them, and it also sends a message that they are being watched by "real" people. Maybe that can help them avoid "stripper" moments.

4. As a teacher, social media can give you valuable feedback and genuine warm moments. I didn't ask for a video of me running my yap to be posted on Facebook. However, it was. The comments showed me that I had made a difference to those kids. It also gave me an opportunity to see myself. Without Facebook the video would exist, but it wouldn't have done any good.

I suspect that's the takeaway from all of this. Social media has changed the speed and way we interact with each other. But the real value is in that it lets us share. And though I bemoan (to some degree) that sharing as creating the too many ribbons/no negative feedback culture the sharing can be really useful. So teachers, pick up that mouse, and start using your social media for good!

(that said, I still hesitate to friend students, but mostly I accept them and then just hide them from my news feed. It makes all of my posts better if I think that students may be reading them. If I need to complain about kids, I can always fall back on a teacher's best friend).