Questions Before Answers: What Drives a Great Lesson?

8 01 2015


DECEMBER 18, 2014

Recently, I was looking through my bookshelves and discovered an entire shelf of instruction books that came with software I had previously purchased. Yes, there was a time when software was bought in stores, not downloaded. Upon closer examination of these instruction books, I noticed that many of them were for computers and software that I no longer use or even own. More importantly, most were still in shrink-wrap, never opened. I recalled that when I bought software, I just put the disk into the computer and never looked at the book.

I realized that I did the same when I bought a new car — with one exception. I never read the instruction book in the glove compartment. I just turned on the engine and drove off. I already knew how to drive, so I didn’t need a book. The exception occurred when I tried to set the clock. I couldn’t figure it out, so I finally opened the glove compartment and checked the book.

This pattern was and is true for every device I buy. I never read the book that comes with a toaster, an iPod, or a juicer unless I have a question. There are some people who do read instruction books before using a device, but with no disrespect intended, those people are a small minority. Our minds are set up to not care about answers unless we have a question. The greater the question, the more compelling it is, the more we want the answer. We learn best when questions come before answers.

The Need to Know

Too many classrooms ignore this basic learning model. They spend most of class time providing information and then ask questions in the form of a quiz, test, or discussion. This is backward. Too many students never learn this way. It is simply too hard to understand, organize, interpret, or make sense out of information — or even to care about it — unless it answers a question that students care about.

Lessons, units, and topics are more motivating when they begin with a question whose answer students want to know. Not only do great questions generate interest, they also answer the question that so many students wonder about: “Why do I have to learn this?” Finally, great questions increase cognitive organization of the content by framing it into a meaningful answer to the opening question.

There is a catch, though, in using questions to begin your lesson. The question must be connected to the content, so that the following learning activities actually answer the question. The question must fit your students’ age, ability, and experiences. In addition, the question needs to provoke both thought and curiosity. In fact, it must be compelling enough to generate so much motivation so that students can’t help but want to know the answer.

Have you ever forgotten the name of a song and spent hours trying to remember it? It gets under your skin until you no longer want the answer — you need it. That’s what a great opening question does for students. Compulsion more than simple curiosity drives them to learn the information that follows. It’s what I felt when I finally wanted to read my car manual so that I could set the clock.

10 Questions That Motivate Learning

Questions this powerful are hard to find. I suggest collecting as many as you can (5-10 per year, for example), and after weeding out the ones that didn’t work, eventually you’ll be able to fill a notebook or computer file with them. I have been collecting these kinds of questions from teachers for years. Here’s a sample of some great ones that worked with students in creating enough motivation to drive an entire lesson.

  • Middle school math: What does Martin Luther King have in common with algebra? (Answer: Both are concerned with equality.)
  • First grade science class studying particles: What is the smallest thing you’ve ever held in your hand? (Warning: Do not use this question in high school.)
  • Upper-level history class studying the Pilgrims: Is there anything your parents could ever do to you that would make you run away from home?
  • Elementary art: If humans could be a color other than any of the colors that they already are, what color would they be? Why do you think this? Draw some people of this color.
  • High school English: If Hamlet were a television sitcom, what would be a better name for it?
  • Elementary English: What is the best name for a book about your life?
  • Geography: Why does Israel have more fertile soil than other Middle East countries that share the same desert? (Answer: It has more trees to hold in moisture.)
  • Second grade reading: We are going to redesign the alphabet. What three letters can be eliminated? (Answer: C, Q, X)
  • Eighth grade physical education: Why is a soccer ball harder to control inside the gym than on the field? (Answer: Friction)
  • Middle school English: Why don’t good and food rhyme? Given the definition of best, can you have more than one best friend?

Each of these questions was used by teachers to begin lessons that really motivated their students. Can you add any more to the list?

Wired for Wonder Part 2

3 01 2015

10805690_10204355733627861_9199597015240772566_nLet’s explore this metaphor further.  We hear hints to this quite often. You might hear in the lunchroom “There was magic in the classroom today”, “It worked like magic” “I wish I could do magic today in class”.

I am not suggesting teachers use trickery or subterfuge to deceive students like a street con artist would do. Though I am sure all teachers have been tempted in this. Listen to the words of Whit Haydn describe the three card con game:

We’re playing a game called Chase the Ace,
You have to guess from the back what’s on the face.
Once I mix the cards around,
You tell me where the Ace is found
Hey! Step this way!
Come here and play!
This is the game for the sporting fan,
Try your luck with the Monte Man!   (footnote)

A magical teacher is not a flim-flam man who scams and swindles with schemes to defraud.

I am also not suggesting that teachers be like a circus sideshow barker who shouts,

“Step right up to the Amazing Traveling Carnival and Side Show Extravaganza.  Come on in! It’s only a dollar!  I guarantee you haven’t seen anything like this! Rides? We’ve got Tilt-A-Whirl and we’ve got Merry-Go-Round and a Ferris Wheel! Stay for the Wild Man of Borneo! We’ve got soda pop and corn dogs! Ice cream and cotton candy! Come one come all! Only a dollar, only a dollar!”

I am sure teachers have been tempted to attract the attention of students like that. What I am suggesting is something deeper and wonderful.

Now listen to these preliminary comparisons of a magician and a teacher.

-He is a Showman like Circus Ringleader who points the audience to the spectacle

-He is a mind reader who reads the group with great observation skills

-He creates a receptive atmosphere

-He influences the mental state of the students

-He projects an air of mystery

-He attracts and focuses attention

-He uses words to create change

-He creates memorable moments

-He reveals and evokes wonder

 Listen to the haunting words of world class poet, musician and magician  Jay Scott Berry  (footnote)

                                         The Magician

     I can impress you in the wink of an eye with skills that will surely astound

     I can amaze, amuse, inspire, delight, and lead you to the profound

     You may simply think to brush it all off as prestidigitation.

     Or perhaps you may wish to look a bit deeper to the pool of inspiration.

     For the magic runs wild in the sea of your mind and to find it is always the goal.

     It whispers and sings in the depths of your heart all the way down to our soul.

     It beckons the dreamer ever to fly, the dancer ever to dance.

    And I the Magician, the Worker of Wonder, can merely offer the chance.


Now imagine as the teacher walks into the classroom.  The students are on edge of their seats.

Excitement filled the air with anticipation. What ideas would she produce today? She had no mirrors or threads and nothing up her sleeve.  She seemed to control the environment with the smile on her face.  She told stories of wonder that created life into the pages of the book and in our hearts.  We traveled together as the day unfolded. She did not perform a magic trick because the attention was not on her.  She evoked the magic in us.  She read our minds and hearts. She knew when we were ready.  She gently brought us to a place where we wanted to learn the secret knowledge of math and science. She enticed us to explore.  Her magic hat was a book.  Her magic words were ….”I believe in you”   “You can do this”   She was filled with enthusiasm, confidence,  she was a master of the subject, symbol of something the students desire.  We all wanted to be a teacher because of her. One thing that this teacher did was to see that the magic was in us.  She unleashed a sense of wonder that we could do marvelous things with our minds.

This teacher evoked the wonder and taught that true magic takes work!  The magic was that the students desired to work to produce more magic.

As Blaine Lee, author of the Power Principle, says  “The great leaders are like the best conductors – they reach beyond the notes to reach the magic in the players.”

Teachers need to encourage students that success does not take a magic hat but it takes putting on their thinking caps.  They convey ideas like “It is not a genii lamp for wishful thinking but using brains to do real thinking.  Exercising the body makes us physically strong but successful mental strength comes from determination, persistence, tenacity, resoluteness, toughness and endurance.  There is no elevator to success. You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.  It takes effort.”   That is the magic teachers can produce in the students.

Author  Robert Fanney echoes this when he asks “Is there magic in this world? Certainly! But it is not the kind of magic written about in fantasy stories. It is the kind of magic that comes from ideas and the hard work it often takes to make them real.”

One of these teachers was my 7th grade English teacher who believed in me.

I was in Middle school.  You remember Middle School- the time where self-efficacy declines and wonder diminishes.  But in this class the atmosphere was exploratory and enjoyable. But I remember less about her and more about the magic she unleashed from me. I discovered that I could write poetry with thoughts beyond my years and with language skills beyond the normal 7th grade level.  I was creative! I was a writer and a poet!  I learned to love writing poetry and I produced more in her class than any other class.  I always remember this with a renewed sense of wonder.

She was my cheer leader who produced magic in my heart and helped me  regain my sense of wonder.  She was my wonder champion.

Rita Pierson says, “Every child deserves a champion-an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best they can possibly be”   (footnote)

Listen to E.E. Cummings reflection on this, “We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

This is a true magician teacher!!!

For many years this sign hung on the door of my own classroom. “In this classroom you are invited to reach your potential!  I believe in you!  You can rise to the challenge!”  I thought of my 7th grade teacher  every time I walked by that sign.

Great teachers are like magicians because they reveal and evoke wonder.

Stay tuned for Part 3….

Wired for Wonder by Bob Bishop Part 1

2 01 2015

10805690_10204355733627861_9199597015240772566_nPeople are metaphor makers.  We create our metaphors and we perceive life from the metaphors we create.  Metaphors are powerful ways we make meaning of this world. They can empower us and they can debilitate us.  That is why it is important to carefully choose our metaphors that bring success and creativity. Giving the right metaphor to our students can also transform the way they perceive themselves and their ability for learning.

Imagine that you  keep some of the most powerful life changing metaphors in your pocket and can bring them out when you need some reminders.  Let’s try some pocket metaphors right now!

Take some coins from your pocket.  Do it right now! I know that in reading this you may be tempted to be passive and not take action.  But slow down your skimming and take some coins out of your pocket.   Again, take some coins out from your pocket!  Place these coins on the floor and stand on them.  You have just acted out the most powerful metaphor we can begin with.  You are standing in the midst of change.  If you want education to change for the better you need to take action.

Deeper in your pocket you can keep a little paw removed from a stuffed Teddy Bear (a little gruesome, I know).  When you are overwhelmed with all the confusion in education you need to pause (paws), take breath and reflect on why you are in education and the part you play to improve the minds of students.

In my right pants pocket I keep my keychain with a  small flashlight to remind me that when things look dim I can shine some light on the situation and others if I just lighten up a bit.

In my wallet in my back pocket I am ready for anything because I carry one playing card-a joker.  This is a reminder that whatever I am dealt I can transform it something better.  I can laugh at the absurdities of life and not take myself too seriously.

Imagine using this idea with your students.  Imagine them handling struggles, problems or situations  with a metaphor that matches their strengths or passions. Perhaps math is a dragon that they can train or slay.  Perhaps a problem is an opposing football player that they can tackle.  Now imagine blessing your student with the strengths of their heroes.  How would Superman turn this situation around?  If you had the ability to change minds or abilities with your favorite  hero how would they do this?

Here is a helpful hint to all teachers out there. We can teach students  how to apply an appropriate metaphor with their imagination to help them achieve success.  If we want individuals to succeed treat them uniquely with the metaphor that matches their creative passions.  Metaphors have the power of metamorphosis–they can empower students to transform how they perceive problems, success and the world.

We can see how metaphors are the grid and projector of how we perceive the world.  They have penetrated our vocabulary so well they are often imperceptible.

Listen to a few:

Ideas are food: There are raw facts, half-baked ideas you can’t swallow or digest that you may have to let stew for a while or put on the back burner until they become food for  thought.

Ideas are plants: From her fertile imagination planted in her youth became a seed of a budding theory that got to the root of the issue that may branch out before it dies on the vine.

Let’s take a short walk to explore how we use familiar educational metaphors. Take the well-known quote by Socrates: “Education is the kindling of a flame not the filing of a vessel”  Einstein has a similar version of this ideas when he said, “A student is not a container you have to fill but a torch you have to light up.”

These quotes introduce two contrasting metaphors. One sees students as receptacles for stuffing information and knowledge into. The other sees students  as a spark to ignite.  One sees teachers as one who imposes knowledge and fills the mind receptacle with information. The other sees the teacher bringing out knowledge and igniting a flame.  Choosing your metaphor influences how you teach and perceive your students.

In Latin the word “educate” has two Latin roots.  They are eduare which means to train or mold and educere meaning to draw out. Thus there is an etymological basis for many of the debates about education today.  (footnote)

One camp uses education as the preservation and passing down of knowledge -the shaping of youths in the image of the past.  The other camp sees education as preparing a new generation for the issues that are to come–preparing youths to create new solutions to problems yet unknown.

Pushing the characterization to an extreme: one calls for rote memorization and becoming good workers while the other requires questioning, thinking and creating.

If you were to listen carefully to our vocabulary you might catch some learning metaphors that affect how education plays itself out even in your child’s classroom.

If we see the classroom of students as a garden we would see the teacher as planting ideas as seeds that grow in our students.

If we see our classroom as a competitive race you would see whoever gets to the finish line first wins.

If you see yourself as a gamer you would strategize to determine what to teach and students would either win or lose

If the classroom is seen as a battleground the job would be to win over the students.

A common metaphor of the industrial age is the educational factory where students are products on an assembly line molded to fit in a competitive system.

A common (seemingly harmless) metaphor for education is a journey.  But this can be distorted to become the journey of the teacher. The trailblazer teacher’s responsibility is to keep moving their students through content.  The teacher “needs to keep going,” “pass to the next thing”, “move on” and to “to cover the material”.  Student lack of movement (lack of academic progress) is used to describe students who can’t keep the pace.  The road to academic progress has only one “only way”  and “one size fits all”.

Even the Latin root of curriculum adds momentum to this. Curriculum means a “race” or the “course of a race.”

Let’s take out that “paw” from your pocket to pause and reflect.

Metaphors that focus on what the teacher does rather than what the students learn sees students as passive receivers who need motivation to stretch that vessel and to keep up with the race.

So what are we really teaching?  What is the secret curriculum between the lines of our schools? What hidden  metaphor is behind the curtain of our educational system?  What metaphor is behind the decision making in this countries’ education system.  When we continually compare our country with other countries to demonstrate how far we are behind are we not presupposing a metaphor?  What we focus on is what our children focus on.

The most well-known metaphor for ideas is a light bulb. Let’s start there for a moment. Let’s take out that flash light from your pocket to shed some light on education.

Here are some observations based on a light bulb.

  1. We are all wired differently with different learning styles.  If we look around at the observable differences in students we can be assured that their brains, though looking  similar, have far more neuron nuances with more complex differences than physical appearances.
  2. We learn by making connections.  Learning is a physical process in which new knowledge is represented by new brain cell connections.  Students gather information but it takes the integrative imagination to create knowledge.
  3. Our task is turning kids on to learning.  Just as a light bulb has a switch to turn it on, teachers have to find that switch that will light up the student’s desire to learn.
  4. Sometimes we get our wires crossed on what learning is all about.  We do not connect  because we do not teach to how students learn.
  5. We can all use some bright creative ideas for motivation.  The best teachers are models of learning.  They share with students that every day is a learning experience to further understand the topics they teach and the students they seek to inspire.
  6. We are wired for wonder.  Deep inside every learner there is a mind that hungers for the electricity of astonishment and a desire for wonder.

I would like to introduce a new metaphor.  It is exciting, mysterious and fun! We are in a transformational time in education.  Remember we are standing in the midst of change. But you better sit down to listen to this.  Here is a fresh metaphor to help us transform our perspective of education.

Think of the first magic trick you saw and how you experienced a thrill, surprise, mystery, and a spectacle.  Think of a time where your innocence found wonder.  This may sound trivial or naive now but think of how you felt as a child. This was a time before you knew about sleight-of-hand, trapdoors, and “up the sleeve” secrets.  This was before you knew that parlor tricks were done with smoke and mirrors.  This was before your amazement was dashed after a magician fumbled or bumbled and destroyed the spell.

You could have remembered your grandfather pulling a coin from your ear. You could have remembered a circus or amusement park entertainer or a stage illusion from David Copperfield. You could have been dazzled by a close-up magician with a card trick, amazed by an escape artist in the tradition of Houdini, or had someone “read” your mind.

What if you had a magic wand that could transform something about education or your teaching?  Like that joker in your back pocket, what if you could transform what you were dealt into something amazing?

Would you like to make some magic happen in your classroom?  Remember we are developing a metaphor even as you read.

What if you could……..

                    M    Motivate from a heart of wonder

                    A    Activate learning

                    G    Generate inquisitiveness

                    I      Invigorate emotions

                    C    Celebrate the brain

Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding by Todd Finley

2 01 2015

JULY 30, 2014

What strategy can double student learning gains? According to 250 empirical studies, the answer is formative assessment, defined by Bill Younglove as “the frequent, interactive checking of student progress and understanding in order to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately.”

Unlike summative assessment, which evaluates student learning according to a benchmark, formative assessment monitors student understanding so that kids are always aware of their academic strengths and learning gaps. Meanwhile, teachers can improve the effectiveness of their instruction, re-teaching if necessary. “When the cook tastes the soup,” writes Robert E. Stake, “that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.” Formative assessment can be administered as an exam. But if the assessment is not a traditional quiz, it falls within the category of alternative assessment.

Alternative formative assessment (AFA) strategies can be as simple (and important) as checking the oil in your car — hence the name “dipsticks.” They’re especially effective when students are given tactical feedback, immediately followed by time to practice the skill. My favorite techniques are those with simple directions, like The 60 Second Paper, which asks students to describe the most important thing they learned and identify any areas of confusion in under a minute. You can find another 53 ways to check for understanding toward the end of this post, also available as a downloadable document.

In the sections below, we’ll discuss things to consider when implementing AFAs.

Observation: A Key Practice in Alternative Formative Assessment

A fundamental element of most AFAs is observation. In her Edutopia post, Rebecca Alber says there is much to learn by taking observational notes as students work in groups. “However,” she clarifies, “if it is quiet during this talk time, and they are watching you watch them, they are most likely lost.” Another Edutopia blogger, Elena Aguilar witnessed “a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher” who directed his students to respond to a story by making hand gestures and holding up picture cards. “In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and provide corrective feedback.”

By methodically watching and recording student performance with a focused observation form, you can learn a lot about students’ levels of understanding in just a few moments. For example, on the Teach Like a Champion blog, watch how math teacher Taryn Pritchard uses an observation sheet, and note her description of how she pre-plans to assess students’ mastery levels in only ten seconds. Pre-planning methodical observations allow instructors to efficiently and effectively intervene when it counts most — the instant students start down the wrong path.

New to Alternative Formative Assessment? Start Slow

The National Capital Language Resource Center recommends the following when introducing alternative assessment for the first time:

  • Integrate alternative assessments gradually, while still using the traditional assessments.
  • Walk students through the rubrics and discuss expectations when you introduce assignments.
  • Learn to score alternative assessments yourself, and then gradually introduce students to self-evaluation.
  • Teach students how to thoughtfully give each other feedback as you introduce them to peer-response.

A Simple Way to Gain Information from Your Students: Ask Them

When preservice teachers are confused as to why their students performed poorly on an assignment, I gently say, “Did you ask them why?” After all, having learners use their own vernacular to articulate why they are stuck can be profoundly useful for identifying where to target support.

According to the American Institute of Nondestructive Testing, the simplest tool to encourage student self-assessment is evaluative prompts:

  • How much time and effort did you put into this?
  • What do you think your strengths and weaknesses were in this assignment?
  • How could you improve your assignment?
  • What are the most valuable things you learned from this assignment?

Learners can respond to those prompts using Padlet, a virtual corkboard where many computer users can simultaneously post their responses, followed by a focused whole-class discussion of students’ answers. The instructor doesn’t always have to develop prompts — students can invent and submit one or more potential exam questions and answers on relevant content. Tell them that you’ll include the best contributions on a forthcoming quiz.

Portfolios are a more complex form of ongoing self-assessment that can be featured during student-led conferences. James Mule, principal of St. Amelia Elementary School in New York, describes how children benefit from the student-led conferences that occur at his institution: “With the student in charge and the teacher acting as a facilitator, the authentic assessment gives students practice in self-evaluation and boosts accountability, self-confidence, and self-esteem.” Pernille Ripp’s Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension provides all the handouts needed.

The biggest benefit of integrating AFAs into your practice is that students will internalize the habit of monitoring their understanding and adjusting accordingly.

We created the following list as a downloadable reminder to post by your computer. In the comments section of this post, tell us which of these 53 ways you’ve used for checking on students’ understanding — or recommend other AFAs we should know about.

Click to download a PDF of these 53 AFA strategies (435 KB).
  1. Summary Poem Activity
    • List ten key words from an assigned text.
    • Do a free verse poem with the words you highlighted.
    • Write a summary of the reading based on these words.
  2. Invent the Quiz
    • Write ten higher-order text questions related to the content. Pick two and answer one of them in half a page.
  3. The 411
    • Describe the author’s objective.
  4. Opinion Chart
    • List opinions about the content in the left column of a T-chart, and support your opinions in the right column.
  5. So What? Journal
    • Identify the main idea of the lesson. Why is it important?
  6. Rate Understanding
  7. Clickers (Response System)
  8. Teacher Observation Checklist
  9. Explaining
    • Explain the main idea using an analogy.
  10. Evaluate
    • What is the author’s main point? What are the arguments for and against this idea?
  11. Describe
    • What are the important characteristics or features of the main concept or idea of the reading?
  12. Define
    • Pick out an important word or phrase that the author of a text introduces. What does it mean?
  13. Compare and Contrast
    • Identify the theory or idea the author is advancing. Then identify an opposite theory. What are the similarities and differences between these ideas?
  14. Question Stems
    • I believe that ________ because _______.
    • I was most confused by _______.
  15. Mind Map
    • Create a mind map that represents a concept using a diagram-making tool (like Gliffy). Provide your teacher/classmates with the link to your mind map.
  16. Intrigue Journal
    • List the five most interesting, controversial, or resonant ideas you found in the readings. Include page numbers and a short rationale (100 words) for your selection.
  17. Advertisement
    • Create an ad, with visuals and text, for the newly learned concept.
  18. 5 Words
    • What five words would you use to describe ______? Explain and justify your choices.
  19. Muddy Moment
    • What frustrates and confuses you about the text? Why?
  20. Collage
    • Create a collage around the lesson’s themes. Explain your choices in one paragraph.
  21. Letter
    • Explain _______ in a letter to your best friend.
  22. Talk Show Panel
    • Have a cast of experts debate the finer points of _______.
  23. Study Guide
    • What are the main topics, supporting details, important person’s contributions, terms, and definitions?
  24. Illustration
    • Draw a picture that illustrates a relationship between terms in the text. Explain in one paragraph your visual representation.
  25. KWL Chart
    • What do you know, what do you want to know, and what have you learned?
  26. Sticky Notes Annotation
    • Use sticky notes to describe key passages that are notable or that you have questions about.
  27. 3-2-1
    • Three things you found out.
    • Two interesting things.
    • One question you still have.
  28. Outline
    • Represent the organization of _______ by outlining it.
  29. Anticipation Guide
    • Establish a purpose for reading and create post-reading reflections and discussion.
  30. Simile
    • What we learned today is like _______.
  31. The Minute Paper
    • In one minute, describe the most meaningful thing you’ve learned.
  32. Interview You
    • You’re the guest expert on 60 Minutes. Answer:
      1. What are component parts of _______?
      2. Why does this topic matter?
  33. Double Entry Notebook
    • Create a two-column table. Use the left column to write down 5-8 important quotations. Use the right column to record reactions to the quotations.
  34. Comic Book
    • Use a comic book creation tool like Bitstrips to represent understanding.
  35. Tagxedo
    • What are key words that express the main ideas? Be ready to discuss and explain.
  36. Classroom TED Talk
  37. Podcast
    • Play the part of a content expert and discuss content-related issues on a podcast, using the free Easypodcast.
  38. Create a Multimedia Poster with Glogster
  39. Twitter Post
    • Define _______ in under 140 characters.
  40. Explain Your Solution
    • Describe how you solved an academic problem, step by step.
  41. Dramatic Interpretation
    • Dramatize a critical scene from a complex narrative.
  42. Ballad
    • Summarize a narrative that employs a poem or song structure using short stanzas.
  43. Pamphlet
    • Describe the key features of _______ in a visually and textually compelling pamphlet.
  44. Study Guide
    • Create a study guide that outlines main ideas.
  45. Bio Poem
    • To describe a character or person, write a poem that includes:
      • (Line 1) First name
      • (Line 2) 3-4 adjectives that describe the person
      • (Line 3) Important relationship
      • (Line 4) 2-3 things, people, or ideas the person loved
      • (Line 5) Three feelings the person experienced
      • (Line 6) Three fears the person experienced
      • (Line 7) Accomplishments
      • (Line 8) 2-3 things the person wanted to see happen or wanted to experience
      • (Line 9) His or her residence
      • (Line 10) Last name
  46. Sketch
    • Visually represent new knowledge.
  47. Top Ten List
    • What are the most important takeaways, written with humor?
  48. Color Cards
    • Red = “Stop, I need help.”
    • Green = “Keep going, I understand.”
    • Yellow = “I’m a little confused.”
  49. Quickwrite
    • Without stopping, write what most confuses you.
  50. Conference
    • A short, focused discussion between the teacher and student.
  51. Debrief
    • Reflect immediately after an activity.
  52. Exit Slip
    • Have students reflect on lessons learned during class.
  53. Misconception Check
    • Given a common misconception about a topic, students explain why they agree or disagree with it.

Other Assessment Resources

In Edutopia’s The Power of Comprehensive Assessment, Bob Lenz describes how to create a balanced assessment system.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) describes dozens of Formative Assessment Strategies.

The Assessment and Rubrics page of Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything website hosts many excellent assessment rubrics.

More Rubrics for Assessment are provided by the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Jon Mueller’s Authentic Tasks and Rubrics is a must see-resource in his Authentic Assessment Toolbox website.

Debunking the Genius Myth

21 12 2014

| August 30, 2013 |


Picture a “genius” — you’ll probably conjure an image of an Einstein-like character, an older man in a rumpled suit, disorganized and distracted even as he, almost accidentally, stumbles upon his next “big idea.” In truth, the acclaimed scientist actually said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” But the narrative around Einstein and a lot of accomplished geniuses — think Ben Franklin, the key and the bolt of lightning — tends to focus more on mind-blowing talent and less on the hard work behind the rise to success. A downside of the genius mythology results in many kids trudging through school believing that a great student is born, not made — lucky or unlucky, Einstein or Everyman.

Harvard-educated tutors Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien began to notice that this belief about being born smart was creating a lot of frustration for the kids they tutored, and sometimes unwittingly reinforced by their parents. “We had sessions working with a student where the mom would walk by and say, ‘Oh, he didn’t get the math gene!’” said O’Brien. “And I’d think, Gee, give the kid a reason to never even try.”

“Try,” it seems, is the magical and operative word that has the possibility to transform how well a student does in school — once they understand a little about how to try, and a little about how learning and the brain works. How students think about learning makes a difference in what they’re able to achieve. Groundbreaking research conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that when students take on a growth mindset – one in which they believe that the brain is malleable, and they can improve at a task with effort – they handle setbacks better and improve academically.

“Kids are sent to school with no manual on how to use their brains. Not what to learn buthow to learn.”

Maats and O’Brien knew about all the research, and began sharing information about learning and the brain with their students. They turned their one-on-ones into a book, The Straight-A Conspiracy, to show teenagers that they had control, for a large part, over how they did in school, and that believing certain kids were born talented was a grand conspiracy to keep them down and stressed out (with tongue planted firmly in cheek). The authors use the latest research in psychology and neuroscience to try and convince teens, with lots of pop culture references and humor thrown in, that understanding how their brain learns can help them “totally rule the world.”

Maats explained that often students he tutored had watched another kid in class blow through an assignment and assumed they were just naturally good at it, that they didn’t even have to try. But he began clarifying the real reason they worked so fast; the student knew the answer right away because “it had become automatic,” he said. “They looked effortless, but they only became effortless through hard work.” Unlike sports or music, where students can see others practicing, much of schoolwork practice happens at home, builds slowly over time, and goes unseen. “You don’t see the work others are doing, so it looks like it never happened,” Maats said.

[RELATED: Eight Ways of Looking at Intelligence]

O’Brien said that “geniuses” also know how to focus their attention, and that’s why they may appear calm. “That overwhelmed feeling is coming from attention being focused on too many things that are not automated at once,” she said. “You can’t focus on two things you don’t know – but neither could Einstein!” Explaining one of the largest conspiracies they face with students, and parents’ biggest complaint, student multitasking, they disseminate the research for the teenage brain:

“Your attention can only deal with one unautomated task at a time. The idea that your attention can multitask is a major myth… When you’re trying to do all four of these tasks – walking, chewing gum, talking to your friend and reading Huckleberry Finn – the first two won’t be affected, because you’ve automated them. You can keep walking and chewing gum without even noticing they’re happening. But each of the new activities – holding a new conversation and reading a new book – requires your full attention in order to go well… But the more important point is that you just don’t want to put yourself through that! It’s totally manic!… The more stuff you pile on at once, the more time pressure you add to the situation, the more you start to feel really overwhelmed.”

By using concrete research in a way that speaks directly to teenagers, Maats and O’Brien hope to dispel the image of the rumpled genius, being brilliant in spite of himself. Instead, they want students to know that there are proven techniques that can improve their school performance and get parents and teachers off their back (a particular favorite is “Go Cyborg on Your Mistakes,” an extended “Terminator” metaphor that relates the idea of focused practice). And they seem to relish explaining that the straight-A student is working harder than kids think.

[RELATED: Can Everyone Be Smart At Everything?]

“You would never put a child into the driver’s seat of a car, with no license and no drivers’ ed, and expect him to be able to cruise down the highway successfully, with no fear or hesitation,” said O’Brien. “And yet kids are sent to school with no manual on how to use their brains. Not what to learn but how to learn. The result is that everyone spends their days in school guessing what might be the best approach, the most effective technique…and the questioning about the how takes a lot of time and attention away from what needs to be learned.”

Six Ways To Motivate Students To Learn

21 12 2014

Annie Murphy Paul


Scientific research has provided us with a number of ways to get the learning juices flowing, none of which involve paying money for good grades. And most smart teachers know this, even without scientific proof.

1.   Fine-tune the challenge. We’re most motivated to learn when the task before us is matched to our level of skill: not so easy as to be boring, and not so hard as to be frustrating. Deliberately fashion the learning exercise so that students are working at the very edge of your abilities, and keep upping the difficulty as they improve.

2.  Start with the question, not the answer. Memorizing information is boring. Discovering the solution to a puzzle is invigorating. Present material to be learned not as a fait accompli, but as a live question begging to be explored.

3.   Encourage students to beat their personal best. Some learning tasks, like memorizing the multiplication table or a list of names or facts, are simply not interesting in themselves. Generate motivation by encouraging students to compete against themselves: run through the material once to establish a baseline, then keep track of how much they improve (in speed, in accuracy) each time.

4.   Connect abstract learning to concrete situations. Adopt the case-study method that has proven so effective for business, medical and law school students: apply abstract theories and concepts to a real-world scenario, using these formulations to analyze and make sense of situations involving real people and real stakes.

5.   Make it social. Put together a learning group, or have students find learning partners with whom they can share their moments of discovery and points of confusion. Divide the learning task into parts, and take turns being teacher and pupil. The simple act of explaining what they’re learning out loud will help them understand and remember it better.

6.   Go deep. Almost any subject is interesting once you get inside it. Assign the task of becoming the world’s expert on one small aspect of the material they have to learn—then extend their new expertise outward by exploring how the piece they know so well connects to all the other pieces they need to know about.

For more about the science of learning, go to

Is Executive Functioning the Missing Link for Many Gifted Students?

15 12 2014

Written by Alyssa Coburn on October 8, 2013. Posted in Executive Functioning

taking a testDean’s Story

Let me share with you a story about a gifted child I know named Dean whose story might be familiar to some of you. At three, Dean could correctly identify every Thomas the Tank character that ever appeared on the show.  At four, he figured out how to read on his own and by five, his obsession with presidents meant he could soon tell you the name, birthday, and interesting facts about every president.  At seven, he was memorizing all of the chemical elements for fun. Dean has always had a voracious appetite for reading, enjoys reading the same books over and over again, and could tell you detailed facts about everything he has ever read.

Now that Dean is eleven, it’s puzzling to his parents that he can’t keep up at school. His papers are a mess, riddled with dog-ears.  He brought home three missing assignment slips just last week. He usually aces quizzes and tests, but when he doesn’t get an “A”, he’s more likely to get a “D.”  While he completes homework in record time, it’s a mystery as to how his teacher can decipher his illegible work.  His mom is struggling to understand, “Why is my bright child struggling at school?”  The answer can be found in his executive functioning skills.

What is executive functioning?

When we think of traditional learning, we think of taking in facts and developing skills. These are both examples of input. In Dean’s case, his strength is input.  In fact, his father has often described his mind as a “steel trap.”  Executive functioning (“EF”) skills are an opposite set of skills: they include everything that has to do with acting on knowledge, or output. This means that “EF” includes organizing papers, writing down assignments, taking notes, studying, and even writing with structure. It’s the output that Dean struggles with. Information goes in his mind very easily and thoroughly, and he has no trouble understanding what he’s learning. When he tries to share that information or get through a homework list, however, the work product comes out very scattered.

Is this common in gifted children?

Not all gifted children struggle with executive functioning, but gifted children are often more likely to encounter these struggles than other students.  Why?  For starters, gifted children like Dean find learning and school to initially be very easy, sometimes even boring.   When it comes to developing executive functioning skills, though, there really is a downside to school being “too easy.”  If you are able to easily understand your lessons, memorize the key details, and recall them later, there is no need to develop a set of study skills.  Justin, a former student of mine who is now in high school, found this out the hard way. He breezed through elementary school and middle school. He consistently earned A’s without ever studying.  That also meant that Justin was not practicing these skills.  Even though his developing brain was primed and ready to learn these types of skills, he wasn’t getting opportunities to learn, practice, hone, and master studying. When he transitioned to high school and encountered a rigorous American history course, he had no idea how to approach that class. He floundered for the first time in his academic career.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to studying either.  If Susie can memorize all of her assignments throughout grade school and never needs to write them down, she never has the opportunity to learn and practice assignment management.  If Alex can fly through his homework each night in twenty minutes, he doesn’t have to learn to prioritize and organize his time.  If Cheryl memorizes the details of a lecture right as she hears it, she’s not likely to learn good note-taking skills for when the lectures become much more advanced later on.  Having a talent for taking in information can actually hamper the development of these output skills.

Don’t wait for disaster

Every executive functioning skill can be broken down, taught, practiced, and mastered.  The key is to learn these skills before they are critically needed for success in a tough class.  If your child is going to be taking a heavy course load in the future, make sure that executive functioning skills are being learned early.  The middle school years (grades five to eight) offer the ideal window for this.  Even if your child doesn’t “need” to write everything down or study for his or her current classes, a tutor or teacher can help get these habits firmly established and set the stage for the future.  At a minimum, every child should learn to organize school papers/materials, track and prioritize assignments, take notes on a textbook, study effectively (not just “look over” material), and write responses and paragraphs with structure.  These skills are just as important as learning to solve equations or punctuate a sentence!

 Executive functioning needs also provide another reason for you to work with your teachers and school to ensure that your child is being adequately challenged.  “Too easy” is a problem that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Children who are not challenged enough miss out on an opportunity to practice critical executive functioning skills.  They are also more likely to become risk-adverse and not tackle challenges that are out of their comfort zone.  When kids are regularly challenged with work that pushes their intellectual limits, without putting them in a constant state of frustration, a lot of development can happen: both in terms of input and output!


Amanda Vogel is the Vice President of Nurturing Wisdom Tutoring and the director of Nurturing Wisdom Academy, a private school in Hinsdale.  She has a Master’s degree in special education and over twelve years of experience in teaching, writing curriculum, and supporting educators.  She developed Nurturing Wisdom’s extensive executive functioning curriculum for both their tutoring and school program


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