Sunday, February 24, 2013

Language acquisition research

For a long time, I did my level best to avoid speaking English in my Spanish classes.  I would use pictures, gestures, comparison charts, whatever, to avoid telling students what a given word or phrase meant.  The idea was for me to create "Aha!" moments*, situations in which it was easy and natural for students to engage, and for engaged students to accurately guess the meanings of words and phrases.  Somewhere around here I have an article that suggests that this is what language learning is--the transition from confusion to creating meaning.  Inherent in that idea is confusion: you have to start out not knowing what's going on, and use the tools available to you to create first a broad sense of a communication, then increasingly more accurate detail as you get a better base of the language and more skill at creating meaning.  I saw speaking in English the same way I see shouting at students as a classroom management technique: it does more harm than good, it's a failure of good practice that nevertheless happens because we are after all only human. 

When I went to the TPRS training (see an earlier post), I had a minor crisis of faith.  It was fairly public, and it wasn't pretty.  Everything I thought was essentially undermined--constant translation, followed by repetitions ad nauseam, was sort of the root of how to do it right.  There was no confusion, just a continuum of processing speed.  You start out as a slow processor: you have to look up at the translation, listen as the teacher enunciates every word very clearly, watch carefully as she points out every word she says, and in general try to pretend you're paying attention to the meaning.  If the story hook is good enough, you will.  As you go through, you have to look at the translations less and less, and your confusion between similar-sounding but very important words starts to clear up.

There's another article in support of what TPRS does, and what I'm trying to do.  (The link is to a German website, but the article is in English.)  It feels a little heavy on the interpretation and a little light on supporting "clinical" trials, but it has enough to be a credible source.  It argues in favor of using a learner's first language to support learning a second language.  I find it faintly troubling that the author appeals to 2000 years of language teaching practice as a reason to ignore recent developments--what did the Romans know about language acquisition?  He does, however, take pains to point out that the learner needs to use the new language: "We do not learn any language by using another one."  

At any rate, another point of research in a growing body.

*Like "teachable moment," I hate this phrase.  I'm beginning to think that I just don't like the word "moment." 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

If students designed their own schools....

On the long list of things I want to know more about, we have the Independent Project.  Students designed their own questions and found ways of answering them.  They also wrote a white paper about it, which I would like to read, you know, soonish.

Their websiteTheir blog.

Hat tip The Answer Sheet

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

UPDATE: Stanford charter school study

Earlier I wrote about this CREDO report on the effectiveness of charter schools in Michigan, with the headline, "Charter Schools More Effective."  Today my MEA e-newsletter sent me this gem from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research, which links to a review of the study by somebody else.  (I believe this is why people refer to the self-sustaining nature of bureaucracy.)  That person, one Andrew Maul of U Colorado Boulder, writing for the Think Twice Project (not a project I'm familiar with), suggests that there is almost no difference in performance between charter school students and public education students.  The effect of charter schools was responsible for a performance improvement of .1%, considerably less than the effect of having a teacher that knows how to use compare-and-contrast charts effectively.

Caveat lector: I still have not read the original CREDO study, nor have I read the full Maul report.  I pass this along as a summary of news, not as a position.  However, clearly this new summary of other people's research matches more neatly with my biases than the summary of the original report.

Education in the State of the Union address

Essentially a re-posting from my FB page.  President Obama had a lot of ground to cover in his State of the Union address, and as I read the prepared transcript, it seemed like he did a fairly good job of touching all of the bases.  Education didn't play a major role, but it got about as high a word count as, for example, re-building the housing market, so that's okay, I guess.  I liked his shout-out to Germany's education program, although I'm not certain it works strictly the way he says it does.  It at least shows that our comparison shopping of other nations' education systems don't end with FINland!!1!Q1!  Although, in fairness, I kind of freak out about Finland, too.  The idea of graduating from high school with a technical degree of some kind is definitely an interesting one, worth exploring.  Our county already has a careers and technical education program in place; can we buff it up to the point where some kind of recognized certification comes out of it?

But the most interesting thing is early childhood education.  I have to get ready to work now, so I'll just say this: Leaders, get it done!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

I'm an exciting person who does exciting things

How I spent my Saturday morning:

Made coffee.  Drank coffee.
Reflected on classroom management difficulties I'm having in one class and how that class compares to other classes.
Reviewed previously-used sources for classroom management: First Days of School, CHAMPS, assorted resources accumulated through the years, like you do.
Tried to figure out how applied behavior theory fits into a teaching methodology as fluid as TPRS.
Figured out that some of these things relate to the same difficulties I have with standards mapping in general.  Spent 20 minutes on a standards-mapping tangent.
Wrote new classroom management system informed by research review.  We'll see how it goes.
Read up on Kindergarten Reading, a TPRS event.  Decided I won't have time to do anything about it until next year. 
Blogged about it.

EDITED: I almost forgot!  I read an article about tech integration.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

On NCLB and the role of business in education

From The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss's often-informative blog in the Washington post, we learn that  business leaders are urging Congress to re-write NCLB.  I have a love-hate relationship with NCLB:  It was being passed at a time when I was deeply cynical about the way Washington was writing and passing legislation.  (Since then my cynicism has only deepened, which doesn't bode well for the NCLB rewrite.)  It also came as I was learning about what I now think of as the "old way" of teaching: grades based on points with an emphasis placed on completing homework assignments, class placement based on expected future education goals (although I didn't believe in rigorous tracking), special ed students in their own world.  I think NCLB went a long way to changing the systemic view of the way schools work.  It starts from the philosophy that all students can learn, including those with profound learning disablilities, students who come from nothing, and kids that the teachers really don't like, and from there it draws the conclusion that schools have the responsibility for teaching those students.  In the last 10 years, this has resulted in a major shift in the way school systems work, even as we break a lot of the systems that worked fairly well.

On the negative side, a less nuanced reading of NCLB led directly and inevitably to the "blame the teacher" and "test test test" mentalities that permeate the way the education world (and the rest of the world, for that matter) now behaves.  The fact that schools can do a better job of the way it organizes information and prioritizes spending has been taken to mean that teachers do a lousy job of teaching our children and teachers' unions are stealing all the money from our classrooms.  (In fairness, this is mostly believed by people who already believed that, many of whom make quite a good living believing that.) 

Back to today's reading, though, Strauss takes the buisness community's insistence of a rewrite of NCLB as evidence that it is broken beyond repair.  I have a different take on it.  I of course welcome the engagement of the business community into the conversation about education; the more stakeholders are involved, the richer the conversation will be, even if that doesn't end up doing anything for the final product.  I have two worries about this, though.  The first is that the business community almost always ends up having more impact on education priorities than educators.  Maybe that's just the nature of politics, but I'm not sure asking the CEO of Starbuck's what he wants to see in his prospective employees is the best way to determine education goals.  As Strauss puts it, "
"Critics of education reform note that educators don’t presume to know about business to tell business leaders how to reform their own institutions, but never mind."

The second, and the more important, is that I'm suspicious at best, and cynical at worst, about big business's motives.  When the business community talks about what it wants from schools, all I hear is, "We can't be bothered to train our employees in the skills we want, so we want schools to do it for us.  Also, don't tax us to pay for it."  Particularly troubling is this part from the Business Roundtable's 2013 Growth Agenda: "America also has a very real skills gap. More than 12 million U.S. workers are unemployed, yet businesses report close to 4 million open jobs.(23) Many of these jobs cannot be filled by previously displaced workers because of gaps in skills and training." 

I don't understand why companies can't grab 4 million of the best and brightest of the people they have right now, train them in the skills they need, promote them to the new positions, and then hire 4 million previously-unemployed people to fulfill the new, less-skilled openings.  There has to be somebody working in the mail room at Stryker Instruments who really really wants to be a mechanical engineer; send her to mechanical engineer's school.  Or better yet, develop an in-house, on-the-job training program that leads to some kind of recognized certification and also provides your employee with the skills you need her to have right now.)

The other aspect of this that bothers me is that, during the height of the recession (depth of the recession?), I read an article (citation needed) that said that qualified people were applying for all of these high-skill jobs; companies didn't want to pay high-skill wages to fill those positions, though.  So when they say they can't find people to fill those positions, they're being disingenuous: what they mean is they can't find people to fill those positions for a price they're willing to pay.  A greater number of people with engineering degrees will drive down the cost of expertise in engineering.  (That also explains business's motivation for immigration reform.  Engineering students from India are a whole lot less expensive than engineering students from the US, at least for the first couple of years, and after that, you can fire them and hire new ones.) 

None of this analysis of business's motives is intended to get me and my colleagues off the hook.  I share the business community's goal of a better-educated work force which is able to learn, unlearn, and re-learn a variety of skills and knowledge bases as high-tech fields develop.  I want creativity, clear thinking and effective communicating to be at the heart of our schools.  I want every student who comes out of an American public school to be prepared for anything he or she wants to do.  Business and I want the same things for our students.  I'm just not sure that we want it for the same reason.

Also, I somehow doubt that lawmakers will hear my voice as clearly as they will hear the voices of the CEO's of the Business Roundtable.