Archive for the ‘Teaching Strategies’ Category

Finding Thinking Prompts

Friday, July 12th, 2013

This is a column I wrote for a different blog a few years back.  

I recently received an email asking a great question:  “Where can I find good Thinking Prompts for my math class?”  Thinking Prompts, in case you don’t know, are provocative objects we share with students to create lively conversations in the classroom. In fact you can download a mini-manual for Thinking Prompts at this link, and read about and download other mini-coaching manuals at the Big Four Ning

Coincidently, the day I received that email, I was talking about the very same topic with Laura Parn, an instructional coach in Lincoln, NE.  Laura was looking for a video to use as a Thinking Device for her elementary students to talk about measurement.  What Laura did helped me understand how I could find good Thinking Prompts.

Laura told me she sat at her computer and took a few minutes to think about things students needed to measure and convert to other forms of measurement.  She said she wanted something that would be very familiar to her students, and she came up with something simple: pennies. So, she just Googled “pennies” and “video” and a bunch of options came up.  In less than a minute, she found a great thinking prompt for a lesson on measurement; you can view it here.

I decided to try out her strategy on a higher-level topic, and I chose statistics.  Again, in less than a minute, I found a famous, but great Thinking Device for my topic.  You’ve probably seen it before, but watch it again as a way to introduce statistics in a high school algebra class.  You can view it here.

So here’s my advice. If you’re looking for video Thinking Prompts, all you have to do is go on You Tube, search for your topic, poke around a bit, and you should be able to find appropriate Thinking Prompts.  And if you find any great ones, we’d love to see you post them on the Big Four Ning.

By the way, a simple way to download video from You Tube, if you haven’t tried it out, is Kick You Tube.

You can also find a checklist for evaluating Thinking Prompts from my most recent book, High-Impact Instruction: A Framework for Great Teaching, here

The Power of Clear Explanations

Friday, March 15th, 2013

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Oliver Wendell Holmes

 If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you watch Joe Smith’s four and a half-minute explanation of how to use a paper towel.  His simple explanation changed my life.

What makes Mr. Smith’s explanation so effective?

There are at least four strategies Mr. Smith uses to make sure we know exactly what he is describing. If we apply his strategies to our own explanations, I’m convinced we can be much clearer as teachers, instructional coaches, or presenters.

Why: How to use a paper towel is not that sexy of a topic, but in just a few words, Joe gets our attention and explains why we should care about what he’s describing.  One paper towel per person per day would save 571,230,000 pounds of paper in a year.  Wow.  Even if I’m not that concerned about the environment, I would find it hard to resist those numbers. If nothing else, Joe has captured my attention at the start.

Simple:  Smith doesn’t give us a lot of extra information.  In fact, his talk is built around two words:  shake and fold.  By telling us only what we have to know, he makes it extra easy for us to learn and remember what he is explaining.

Modeled:  Mr. Smith shows us several times how to do this. He even sets up a little sink on the stage so that we can see exactly what to do.  Some of the viewers the TED website give him grief for using too many paper towels during his explanation, but I think he does exactly what needs to be done.  He makes sure we get it by overdoing it.  Too often modeling is cut too short and people are left a little confused. Joe leaves no doubt in our mind how to do what he’s describing.

And, for the record, I’ve already saved dozens of pieces of paper thanks to his explanation, so I’ve made back the few he used up modeling.

Memorable.  Smith helps us remember his explanation in simple ways: getting the crowd shouting out “shake and fold,” displaying a sense of humor, connecting the twelve shakes to twelve to the twelve apostles, twelve zodiac signs and so forth.  After less than five minutes, he makes it almost impossible for us to forget what he has to say.

These are simple strategies, but they are powerful. If we (a) explain why, (b) keep our explanations simple, (c) model, model, model, and (d) make our talk memorable, more people, (children and adults), will remember what we say. Our explanations might just change people’s lives.

Joe Smith changed mine.

My Day As A Substitute Teacher

Friday, March 1st, 2013

Yesterday I volunteered to be a substitute teacher in a local private school.  After a snowstorm grounded me at home, and a seventh-grade teacher had an unfortunate injury, I found myself in front of 25 energetic middle school students.

The day reminded and taught me a lot about how I teach and also prompted me to think about some ways schools can make it easier for substitute teachers.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

What Schools Can do to Set Up Substitute Teachers For Success

Go Out Of Your Way to Support Your Substitute Teacher For Success.  A few minutes after I got to my classroom, the school principal visited me, welcomed me to the school, and took the time to just chat about the students I’d be seeing.  She had a million fires to put out—the school was in real need of more substitutes—but she took the time to put me at ease.

That little gesture was worth a lot. She made me feel good about being in the school, welcome, and I started the day a little more at ease.

Then, throughout the day, even though I was in a portable away from the school, other teachers sought me out to provide support. One teacher made sure I found the staff lounge. One teacher had a nice conversation with me over lunch about teaching English.

One teacher offered to teach math for me on his planning time when I told him I wasn’t great at math. I told him I’d be OK and he should use the little planning time he had, yet still, he kindly made a point of dropping by just to make sure I was fine.

Each of these actions were simple little acts, but each one made me feel welcome, and as any substitute teacher can tell you, it can feel lonely in the classroom even though there all those squirming bodies in front of you.

Provide As Much Information As You Can.  This is probably a dream, and it would have been impossible in my case since I didn’t volunteer until after the school day yesterday, but I would have loved to have had an email the night before class that described what I would be teaching. Then, I could have done some planning ahead of time.  Better plans = better teaching, and the more I know, the better prepared I can be.

Provide Guidelines on Different Kinds of Learning Experiences.  Sixth period I monitored a students’ study hour.  I’m pretty sure that meant the students were supposed to do their homework, but many told me they didn’t have homework, and that left me a bit high and dry.  Students in middle school with nothing to do can be a problem waiting to happen.  I came up with a plan, but it would have helped to have had a description of what study hour is and what students need to be doing when they don’t have homework to do. As always, the more that can be done to help the sub know what to do, the easier subbing might be.

What I Learned About Being A Substitute Teacher

Relationships Are Essential.  Most of the time, my students kindly and respectfully did what I asked them to do.  Part of the reason, I think, is that I did my best to quickly build a relationship with them. I particularly paid attention to positive ratio of interaction, but one simple strategy seemed to work wonders.  I asked all the students to write their names on name tents, and I called on them by name, right from the start. When students heard their name, they sat up and smiled.

I worked hard to memorize their names, and when they quizzed me in the cafeteria and I knew, I could see it made them happy.  It’s a little thing, but using name tents might have been the best idea I had.  I actually think the students were more inclined to stay on task because of this little strategy.

Be Extremely Clear About How Students Give Each Other Feedback. In one class, the students gave little presentations.  I asked them to give each other “thunderous applause,” but for one student, the joker of the class, they offered up paltry applause, kind of joking back at him.  He was a resilient kid, but I could see he was a little crushed by his colleagues. I was disappointed with myself.

I should have been really clear on what applause looks like, modeled it, explained that everyone gets a lot of applause and why, and had the students practice it.  Like so much of teaching, I didn’t realize my mistake until it was too late, but I hope I’ll remember next time.

Compelling Content and Activities Are Crucial.  I could feel myself losing the class right in the first few minutes, and I knew I had to catch their attention, so I pulled out an old trick of mine, memory pegs, which are a lot of fun and also, I think, useful.  The kids enjoyed learning how to do something they didn’t think they could do, and they were a lot more engaged from that point on.  What I learned was that from now on I’ll always have a few highly engaging, simple activities up my sleeve just in case I need to get the kids’ attention, which I probably will have to do every time.

It’s Harder Than It Looks.  Policy makers who think teachers will be “motivated” by rewards for higher test scores should spend a couple days subbing.  Something like a small financial reward would be the last thing on the mind of a teacher standing in front of 25 (or 40) middle school students.  A more basic concern is survival.  Substitute teaching is a bit like riding a wild animal. You just do everything you can think of to stay on top. Teachers need better support, like instructional coaches and meaningful opportunities for collaboration, not old-time carrots and sticks forms of motivation.

All in all, my day was wonderful.  The school could not have been more supportive. And, as usually is the case in schools, the students were the best part. At the start of the day, hoping to set a positive tone, I asked the students to write down what they like most about learning.  One student wrote this:

 “Knowledge leads to wisdom; wisdom leads to understanding, and I love to understand things. I want to be wise and have some answers.”

Profound words for anyone, let alone a young teenager.  Don’t we all want what he or she wanted—to have some wisdom and some answers?  I hope I gained a bit of knowledge yesterday.  Many of you who read this column may have started as substitute teachers.  What helped you, or could have helped you, succeed? What did you learn?  We’d love to hear.


Everything Is Amazing and We Still Don’t Change: What Louis CK Can Teach Us About Personal Growth

Monday, February 4th, 2013

In his best-known comedy bit, Louis CK takes all of us to task for failing to see how incredible it is to live in this time. As he says, “everything is amazing and nobody is happy:”

He is right of course. Everything is amazing. We fly through the sky. We have a tiny machine that can direct us to anywhere we want to drive. We download music, videos, and books in seconds. We find the answers to all our questions on the internet. We visit with people live on camera from any where in the world. How can we forget that everything is amazing? The reason is simple. Over time we almost always get used to whatever we experience. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as habituation.

Habituation occurs when our response to any experience or stimulus decreases over time. Simply put, no matter how beautiful or disgusting a stimulus might be, we can get used to it if we experience it a lot, and we may not even notice what at one time would have been impossible not to see.

Habituation can desensitize us to something beautiful. For example, one of my best friends lives in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, my pick for most beautiful place in the world. A few years back I told him how awestruck I am by the mountains he sees everyday. “The truth is I’ve lived here so long,” he said, “that there are many days when I don’t even notice them.”

Habituation can also desensitize us to very unpleasant stimulus. For example, when I have traveled through towns built by pulp mills that fill the sky with disgusting sulfurous smoke, the locals always tell me, “You know, I hardly ever notice it.” Good or bad, the truth is, we usually get used to it.

When habituation happens to us in the classroom, it can have dire consequences.

First, educators can forget about the true joy of this work–how important and beautiful it is to teach, to empower students to read and write, to become numerate, to help them transcend their social status, to mentor them to be the first in their family to go to college.

Second, teachers can stop seeing children when they aren’t learning. They can stop noticing students who are bored, wasting time, or hating school. They can come to believe that off-task behavior and poor performance are all that can be expected from students.

Finally, people can get used to their our own counter-productive behavior. They can get used to treating students as objects who simply need to comply rather than complex human beings who deserve to be respected. They can let their own need for control trump their students’ need to learn and grow.

Habituation, however, is not permanent, and it can be broken in many ways. Teachers can video record their classes and watch the video to gain insight into their teaching and students. They can work with a coach to get another professional’s perspective. They can visit a colleague’s class to see how another teacher promotes learning. Or they can learn turn to their students and ask them for feedback on how they are experiencing the class.

Over time, people can get habituated to just about any experience or they can teach themselves to see reality for what it is. In schools, it is clear which path is best for students.

Steve Jobs, Radical Learner: Create Insanely Great Experiences

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Jobs launched an innovation in the retail space precisely because he had a bigger vision than his competitors. His customers would enter an Apple store to shop for products and leave “feeling” inspired. —Carmine Gallo

One of Steve Jobs’ innovation secrets, Carmine Gallo tells us, was his desire to create insanely great experiences that affect us emotionally. When he decided that his company would create Apple stores, for example, he was convinced that he needed to do more than “move metal,” which was the commonly held approach to selling computers. He had a much bigger vision. Gallo quotes Apple store designer Ron Johnson who describes what they were trying to accomplish with the Apple store:

To succeed in any business, you need an exceptionally clear vision… The fewer the words the better… When we envisioned Apple’s model we said it’s got to connect with Apple. It was easy. Enrich lives. Enriching lives. That’s what Apple has been doing for thirty plus years.

To create stores that enriched lives, Jobs and Johnson, Gallo explains, established criteria that clearly differentiated them from other retailers:

• Design uncluttered stores
• Locate the stores where people live their lives
• Allow customers to test-drive products
• Offer a concierge experience
• Make it easy to buy
• Offer one-to-one training

A classroom is not a store designed to sell electronic equipment. However, a lot can be learned from Jobs’ desire to create insanely great experiences.

First, we can all ask what our vision is for the experience that our students experience? Are we committed to inspiring students to love learning, to experience respect, to love to read? There is value in asking, “What kind of experience do I want for my students in my class this year?”

Second, we can ask, How can I arrange my class so that it best embodies that vision? Sandi Silbernagel from Slidell, Louisiana found her vision by asking a simple question, “What would I want if I was a seven year old?” Her answer was “comfortable,” and she created a classroom culture that beautifully brought that vision to life:

You can see a short video of Sandi talking about her class here .

You can download a checklist for analyzing your classroom’s environment here .

Creating insanely great experiences for learning takes a lot more than a pithy statement and a perfect room, but environment does make a big difference. Steve Jobs knew that, and his company greatly succeeded because of it—Apple recently passed Tiffany’s for having the highest sales per square foot of any retailer. When we understand the importance of environment, we improve our chances of making a difference for our students.  And in my mind, that’s insanely great.

My New Book: High-Impact Instruction

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

I’m thrilled to share with you that my new book, High-Impact Instruction: A Framework for Great Teaching, has been released by Corwin this week. Many of the ideas in my book were first fleshed out in this column. If you’re interested, you can view an 80-second trailer about the book here:

High-Impact Instruction

You can also download a lot of free resources and view teachers using high-impact instruction strategies here:

Companion Website

I’d love to hear what you think about the site or the book.

Next week I’m going to begin a new series of columns: Steve Jobs, Radical Learner.

Finding Common Ground

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

I wrote this column a few years back on another site–but it seems especially relevant today.  Let’s seek out what we hold in common:

The act of finding common ground, I’ve decided, is a bit like trying to create a venn diagram.  I’m one circle. You’re another circle, and the challenge is to find out where we overlap.

I’ve spend the last week traveling back and forth across Arkansas, meeting with instructional coaches all over the state.  I’ve driven, I figure over 700 miles,  seen a lot of the state, and met many wonderful people. Travel like this, it turns out, is a great opportunity to try out finding common ground. I want to share two experiences I’ve had this week as I’ve tried to create venn diagrams for myself and others.

Experience #1. I stayed over night in a wonderful bed and breakfast the Edwardian Inn in Helena. Over breakfast, before I headed to the workshop site, kind of sleepy and lost in my coffee, eggs, and internet, I suddenly remembered our common ground challenge. I decided to search for some common ground with the host of the inn, and I asked him about the BB King poster he had posted in a corner of the hotel.  That simple question led to a lively conversation about the musical history of Helena.  It turns out that the town has an incredible history. The famous King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show had its start in Helena. The awesome Levon Helm, from the The Band, grew up in Helena.  And the “crossroads”made famous by Robert Johnson were only about 30 miles from Helena in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  These are just some of the things I heard. There were other stories about Conway Twitty and Bessie Smith, and the Helena Blues Festival.  I loved the conversation, and I now have a much deeper appreciation of Helena, and I feel I got to know a really nice fellow.  If you go to the Edwardian Inn, be sure to say hi for me.

Experience # 2. Driving from Little Rock to Fort Smith, I stopped at a gas station off the road.  The two people running the station seemed to be just putting in time. I noticed, however, that they had accents that sounded a bit like they were from India, and it turned out I was right. I shared that I had just been there, and we had a great, lively conversation about the food, the scent, the traffic, and the sense of harmony I felt was central to the Indian way of life.  In a flash, it felt like we were friends. I felt a real connection with them, and we all had fun.  Finding common ground was joyous; it brought me closer to two nice people, and when we found that common ground we were all happier and more energized.

I really believe this is our natural state–happy, connected, and enjoying each other’s company. Our communication challenge is all about getting us back to that state, finding our common ground.

Explaining Why

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

As I was going through security at the Kansas City airport a while back, a TSA official asked me to wait so he could check my suitcase by hand.  This was the third time in three trips through security that I had been stopped, so I was getting a bit ticked off (and starting to feel like a marked man).   After he looked my bag over, the fellow politely explained, “I’m sorry I had to hold you up. Your iPod speaker was lying vertically, and we couldn’t see what it was. If you lay it flat in the suitcase, you probably won’t get stopped again.”

This little interaction took only a few seconds, but it removed every ounce of my grumpiness, and better, it has helped me move through security much more quickly. In fact, my suitcase hasn’t been hand checked since.  Simply by explaining why he was doing what he was doing, the TSA guard made me feel better about what he was doing, and at the same time he gave me some valuable information.

What this TSA official did tapped into something that I think is fundamental with most of us. We want to know why.  Spend 30 minutes with a toddler, and you’ll quickly learn that “why” is one of her or his favorite words.  When we get older, we might stop asking the question as much as we did when we were younger, but we still want to know why.

Explaining why doesn’t take much time, but it satisfies a genuine and deep-seated need for most people.  By taking just a few seconds to explain why, we move away from a power-tripping way of interacting (“just do it because I said so”) toward a more respectful way of interacting (“let me explain why I’m asking you to do this”).  Explaining why communicates that we have thought about others’ perspectives and needs, and decided to address them up front.

Over the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of observing many teachers as part of a project for the Teaching Channel.  Again and again in my observations, I’ve found that by simply explaining why, teachers, like the TSA official, can work a special kind of magic.

Here are just a few of the many “whys” I’ve heard teachers explain:

• “When you practice this with a partner, you be more likely to remember this.”

• “I need you to sit down, because if you sit like that on the desk, it is unsafe, and you might get hurt.”

• “When you talk about a new word from a new language, you are more likely to remember it.”

• “If you draw a picture of the new word, it can help you remember it.”

• “Let’s move to the next activity quickly so we have more time for our review game at the end of the period.”

When teachers gave these brief explanations, their students were much more motivated to act.  In one class, when the teacher explained why students were going to learn about propaganda (“we all need to know how to recognize whether the people who want to lead us are telling or stretching the truth”), students were immediately excited about the experiential learning activity the teacher had set up.

In some classes, teachers got their kids fired up for learning by asking them to explain why they thought a topic was important. When students come up with their own answer to the question why, it is especially powerful.

And explaining why has an additional major benefit. To explain why, we have to ask and answer the same question for ourselves:  “Why am I teaching this?  Why should students learn this?”

When we think deeply about why we are teaching something, and we come to a clear understanding of a subject’s importance, we often teach with a lot more conviction and passion … and students learn better.

Explaining why is encouraging, respectful, and motivating. It fulfills a basic need, and it helps us tap into our passion for a subject.  It only takes a few seconds, but it is a powerful habit to adopt.  Why not explain why for every request or suggestion we make?

I would go so far as to say that if we can’t explain why, if we don’t deeply understand why we are teaching something, we are likely wasting our students’ precious time.

Critical Thinking

Monday, November 15th, 2010

“Only dialogue … is … capable of generating critical thinking.” Paulo Freire

Of course we want out students to think.  Freire’s comment, though, is a powerful caution because he suggests that our students won’t think unless we, ourselves, approach them with openness and a desire to learn from them. We need to be, as David Bohm and others have said, thinking partners with our students.

We can ask one simple question to keep the focus on student learning, “am I letting my students do the thinking?”  There are many strategies we can employ to foster a thinking environment for our students.

Connect learning to student interests. Not much learning will take place if our kids don’t give a rip about what they are learning. For that reason, one of the most important places to start, if we want students to think, is by making sure what we offer is, whenever possible, of particular interest to students.

Much has been written about linking learning to student goals.  You can read a nice summary of much of this writing, here.

One particular program that guides students to identify goals, strengths, fears, and develop an action plan to make their dreams a reality is Possible Selves, developed by colleague Mike Hock.  You can download an article about Possible Selves here.

Ask good questions. E. E. Cummings beautifully sums up the importance of a good question

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question

How, then, do we find beautiful questions?  Fortunately, the web is rich with resources to help educators craft questions that prompt thinking.  The following sites provide an overview of many good ideas related to levels of questions:

Bloom’s original taxonomy

The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy

Art Costa’s Levels of Questions.

Lynn Erickson’s Know Understand and Do

My free manual on crafting and asking effective questions.

Use learning structures that prompt student thinking. One instructional approach that is designed to foster thinking is problem-based learning, pioneered at McMaster University.

Edward DeBono’s work has great potential for promote critical thinking in the classroom, in particular his Six Thinking Hats

Finally, I’ve written about thinking prompts previously on this blog.

These are only a few strategies, so I have a question for you, radical learner.  What do you do that works for you?  How do you prompt student thought? We want to know.

Flow Experiences: The Sweet Spot For Learning

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is one of my heroes. His book Flow is one of the ten non-fiction books that has most influenced my life (and it occurs to me that I only say that about this book).  The book taught me that the question “What am I passionate about?” is much more important to ask than “What will this get me?” when we make decisions about our life’s work.  Flow teaches that engagement is crucial for happiness and success, so if we follow our passion, the rest often works out.

Csikszentmihalyi came to our center at the University of Kansas as a consultant back in the early 1990s.  To position this in time, since we struggled to pronounce his name, we called him the “Flowmeister.” He is a wonderful man, whose knowledge and mind were a delight to experience during his visit.  When he was at KUCRL, he shared his research about optimal experience, what we do when we are at our best, which he also calls a flow experience.

What the Flowmeister explained was that there are many subjective and structural elements to happiness.  When we are at our best, time flies, we feel in control, we are not self-conscious, and we are 100% engaged.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, when we are in what I call a sweet spot for learning, we are tackling a challenge that is perfectly appropriate for the skills we bring to the task.

In situations where our skill level is low, he said, for an optimal flow experience, we need a challenge that is pretty easy. A highly challenging task that we are underprepared for, however, usually makes us feel anxious or frustrated.

At the same time, when we are highly skilled a too easy challenge keeps us out of optimal flow experience (we called this the Flow zone!).  If we are really skilled and the challenge is one we can do in our sleep, chances are, we will be bored.  Too challenging or too easy = no flow experience.

The best situation is one where our challenges are appropriate for our skills.  When we tackle a challenge that pushes a us a little beyond our skills, we are in the sweet spot. If we are to stay engaged, the challenge should increase always as our skill increases.  The folks who create video games totally understand this.  Any video game starts off so easy your grandmother could do it, but as you get better, the game moves you to ever increasing higher levels of challenge.  The result is an activity that keeps kids engaged for hours.

The importance of balancing challenge and skill has significant implications for the classroom. If we want student engagement, we need to do our best to put them in the  sweet spot. This requires using (a) something like assessment for learning to determine how skilled our students are and (b) direct instruction in learning strategies so they learn how to learn and thus are able to take on meaningful challenges.

The sweet spot also applies to our own learning.  If we tackle something that is way beyond where we currently are, we can end up frustrated, anxious or disappointed.  But staying the same and not challenging ourselves leads to boredom, which leads inevitably to resignation, burn out, and a lack of faith in our own abilities.

Growth and learning are the fuel that fire radical learners. But we need to grow at our own pace, in our own time, in the way that works best for us.  And, of course, so do our students.