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Teaching Methods

“My Best Teachers Use Social Media”

By Katie Benmar, Education Week, 4/21/15

The PowerPoint presentations most of my teachers have used are not interactive or engaging.

If teachers want to better understand how social media can affect a student’s desire to learn, they must first look inside the mind of a student….

Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Kik, Vine, and Snapchat all rule the lives of most middle and high school students…. More than nine out of every 10 teenagers has a social-media account.

To comprehend why students spend so much time on social media, the compelling appeal of Facebook, Instagram, and the like has to be understood. With that understanding, teachers should consider the possibility of using social media to enhance learning. Unfortunately, this has been rare in my experience and that of my friends….

Social-media apps are a frequent topic of discussion for my friends and me, along with school. Both subjects are relevant in our everyday lives, although they rarely intertwine. After class, we usually discuss school and homework for a few minutes before the conversation quickly turns to social media. “Wow, I’m really going to have to study for that vocab quiz!” turns into “Did you see what Sophia posted yesterday?” Understanding how to harness the power that social media have over the lives of most students is an important first step in incorporating it into teaching….

For me, the main distraction is Instagram. I’m not alone in this, either—a study from last fall reveals that 76% of teenagers have an Instagram account, while only 45% of teens use Facebook. Instagram takes little effort to maintain and is quickly accessible through my smartphone or iPad….

Learning how to use social media and technology to engage students is potentially beneficial for our learning, and some teachers have taken the first step. At my former middle school, one math teacher has her own Instagram page where she posts homework assignments and things that she taught that day in class. This way, when kids are checking their feeds, homework assignments and reminders will inevitably show up on the screen. This is a good way to get students’ attention and remind them in a relatable way about upcoming tests or homework. Although this teacher is using social media and other technology in a smart way, she is a minority in a sea of teachers and educators that I have known.

The PowerPoint presentations that most of my teachers have used in the past to instruct students are not…interactive or engaging. No wonder students’ minds wander, and they resort to social media as a means of keeping themselves entertained.

In my current high school, Smart Boards have been put into almost every classroom. These boards have seemingly limitless and fascinating capabilities, and they aren’t cheap…. But here’s the thing: Out of my six classes, only one of them uses the board on a daily basis…. The teacher who took the time to figure out the board and use the technology to his advantage has made his class one of my favorites. Watching him use the board to write out the lesson plan and make certain points in class is engaging. Seeing his thinking unfold on the board in front of us holds our attention.

The best teachers I’ve ever had have used technology to enhance learning, including using Facebook pages for upcoming projects or planned online chats about books we read in class. These teachers were interesting to listen to, and the projects were fun and challenging. Online discussions using code names replaced book reports. And the thing is, participating in a discussion with other people didn’t require any less thought about the book than writing a book report would have. It actually made me think about it and understand it better, because I was listening and responding to other people’s opinions that were backed up with evidence, instead of following the same strict book-report format that I had been required to do for years.

I hope that educators will consider experimenting more with technology and social media in their classrooms in a way that will be intellectually challenging to students….

Katie Benmar is a freshman at Roosevelt HS, Seattle WA.

See also in ClassWise:

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Differentiation Doesn’t Work

By James R. Delisle, Education Week, 1/7/15

[Michael’s Note: For a rebuttal to this commentary, see “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.”]

Differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.

Let’s review the educational cure-alls of past decades: back to basics, the open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and E.D. Hirsch’s…accounts of what every 1st or 3rd grader should know, to name a few. It seems America’s teachers and students are guinea pigs in the perennial quest for … the elusive panacea that will solve all of education’s woes….

But wait! The solution has arrived, and it’s been around long enough to prove its worth. What is this magical elixir? Differentiation!

Starting with the gifted-education community in the late 1960s, differentiation didn’t get its mojo going until regular educators jumped onto the bandwagon in the 1980s…. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) has released more than 600 publications on differentiation, and countless publishers have followed suit with manuals and software that will turn every classroom into a differentiated one.

There’s only one problem: Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students….

Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.

In a winter 2011 Education Next article, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli wrote about a University of Virginia study of differentiated instruction: “Teachers were provided with extensive professional development and ongoing coaching. Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. ‘We couldn’t answer the question … because no one was actually differentiating,’ ” the researcher, Holly Hertberg-Davis, told Petrilli.

And, Ms. Hertberg-Davis herself wrote in a 2009 article in Gifted Child Quarterly: “We are not yet at a place where differentiation within the regular classroom is a particularly effective method of challenging our most able learners.”

Mike Schmoker, in a 2010 Education Week commentary titled “When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities,” relates that his experiences of observing educators trying to differentiate caused him to draw this conclusion: “In every case, differentiated instruction seemed to complicate teachers’ work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials, … and it dumbed down instruction.”

As additional evidence of the ineffectiveness of differentiation, in a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute, 83% of teachers nationwide stated that differentiation was “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement.

When it comes to differentiation, teachers are either not doing it at all, or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as they’re supposed to be doing it. Either way, the verdict is clear: Differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions.

The biggest reason differentiation doesn’t work, and never will, is the way students are deployed in most of our nation’s classrooms. Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for each of them. That is a recipe for academic disaster….

The only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals….

Do we expect an oncologist to be able to treat glaucoma? Do we expect a criminal prosecutor to be able to decipher patent law? Do we expect a concert pianist to be able to play the clarinet equally well? No, no, no. However, when the education of our nation’s young people is at stake, we toss together into one classroom every possible learning strength and disability and expect a single teacher to be able to work academic miracles with every kid … as long as said teacher is willing to differentiate, of course.

The sad truth is this: By having dismantled many of the provisions we used to offer to kids on the edges of learning (classes for gifted kids, classes for kids who struggle to learn, and classes for those whose behaviors are disruptive to the learning process of others), we have sacrificed the learning of virtually every student. In the same Fordham Institute report cited earlier, 71% of teachers reported that they would like to see…homogeneous grouping of advanced students, while a resounding 77% of teachers said that, when advanced students are paired with lower-achieving students for group assignments, it’s the smart kids who do the bulk of the work.

A second reason that differentiation has been a failure is that we’re not exactly sure what it is we are differentiating: Is it the curriculum or the instructional methods used to deliver it? Or both?… Teachers need clear guidance on what it is they are supposed to do to reach differentiated Nirvana, yet the messages they receive from the “experts” are [inconsistent]. No wonder confusion reigns and teachers feel defeated in trying to implement the grand goals of differentiation.

Differentiation might have a chance to work if…students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own. Until that time, differentiation will continue to be what it has become: a losing proposition for both students and teachers—yet one more panacea that did not pan out.

James R. Delisle is an educational consultant and president of Growing Good Kids Inc., which works with gifted youths. He’s the author of Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds. A former Distinguished Professor of Education at Kent State, he now teaches part time at Scholars Academy HS in Conway, SC.

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Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work

By Carol Ann Tomlinson, Education Week, 1/28/15

[Michael’s Note: This essay rebuts James R. Delisle’s commentary, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.”]

With sustained support, most teachers can learn the skills necessary to provide classrooms that are both academically rich and academically diverse.

I’ll begin with the idea that teachers don’t differentiate instruction. In fact,…I work with teachers regularly…whose teaching consistently reflects differentiation…. They don’t, as Mr. Delisle writes, “beat themselves up for not doing it as well as they are supposed to be doing it,” but they do understand that the pursuit of expertise in teaching is a career-long endeavor. They aren’t…expecting quick success….

Then there’s the assertion that the only people who think differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it….

I taught for 20 years in differentiated middle school classrooms…working with colleagues who did the same. Like many other teachers…we invented instructional approaches we hoped would benefit our diverse learners, keeping those practices that worked and jettisoning or modifying those that didn’t.

At the University of Virginia, I continue to differentiate in my classes. I also work often with school-based academic coaches and principals who share with colleagues the practices of differentiation they used successfully in their own classrooms. And there are many specialists—in special education, English-language learning, reading, gifted education—who continue to differentiate…even as they share what they know while working alongside teachers in general education classrooms.

Mr. Delisle’s fundamental argument, however, doesn’t seem to be so much that differentiation can’t work under any circumstances, but rather that perhaps it could if we’d just group students by ability. While I know of no aspect of education on which all studies are in total agreement, this one comes close.

Students in lower-track classes don’t achieve as well as they do in heterogeneous settings. Those classes tend to be taught by newer or less engaged teachers. The quality of curriculum and instruction is less robust than in most heterogeneous settings. The intellectual climate in tracked classes is further damped by students who know they are siloed because adults consider them to be less able than many of their peers….

As the wise Bart Simpson told his teacher in one episode of The Simpsons: “You think I’m not smart so you’re gonna put me in a remedial class and slow down what I do. At the same time, the other kids will keep moving ahead, and you think someday I’ll catch up?”….

One outcome of tracking that should be of particular concern in the current school year—the first in which “minority” students became the majority in U.S. schools—is the reality that low-track classes continue to be disproportionately composed of students of color and/or low-income students, while high-track classes remain disproportionately white and/or Asian and middle class….

Recent work in neuroscience and psychology reveals two findings that should be central in educational planning. First,…when we teach as though students are smart, they become smarter. Second, a related but separate body of research indicates that teachers who believe firmly in the untapped capacity of each learner, and thus set out to demonstrate to students that by working hard and working smart they can achieve impressive goals, get far better results than teachers who believe some students are smart, others are not, and little can be done to change that….

That undermines a chief point of Mr. Delisle’s argument that bright learners can’t fare well in heterogeneous classrooms…. I am a firm believer that schools owe every student what the noted researcher John Hattie calls “plus-one learning” in his book Visible Learning for Teachers. With plus-one learning, teachers are obliged to ensure that each learner—including those who are most advanced—moves forward consistently from his or her starting point.

I have no more patience with classes where advanced learners stagnate than I do with classes that shortchange kids who struggle. Here are a couple of points worth considering, however. The studies most cited in terms of benefits of homogeneous instruction for bright learners examined two conditions: heterogeneous classrooms in which little or nothing was done to provide plus-one learning for advanced learners, and homogeneous classrooms in which teachers regularly planned for plus-one learning….

I’ve studied schools in which the entire faculty focused on providing a third condition: differentiation in mixed-ability classrooms where regular planning for a full spectrum of learners—including advanced learners—was a given.

Teachers in those schools typically “teach up,” planning first for advanced learners, then scaffolding instruction to enable less advanced students to access those rich learning experiences. Further, they extend the initial learning opportunities when they are not sufficiently challenging for highly advanced learners. In those schools, achievement for the full spectrum of learners—including advanced learners—rose markedly….

I’ve never felt differentiation was a panacea…. Differentiating instruction well is not easy. But then, I’ve never felt that teaching should be easy….

With intelligent, sustained support, most teachers can learn—step by step and over time—the attitudes and skills necessary to provide plus-one learning in classrooms that are both academically rich and academically diverse.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is a professor and chair of educational leadership at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. She’s the author of numerous books on differentiated instruction.

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Lecture Me. Really.

By Molly Worthen, The New York Times, 10/17/15 A good lecture is an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media. BEFORE the semester began earlier this fall, I went to check out the classroom where I would be teaching an introductory American history course. […]
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Research: Teaching Middle School Girls More Effectively

By Shannon Andrus, Peter Kuriloff, Charlotte Jacobs; Independent School, Spring 2015 Girls are highly relational, not only with their teachers but with classmates. Through an analysis of more than 1,800 surveys completed by students in grades 6-12 and their teachers in 12 independent all-girls schools located across the United States, our findings provide guidelines for […]
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4 Things Lecture Is Good For

By Robert Talbert, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/13/12 1. Modeling thought processes. The benefit of hearing an expert learner…is that, if the lecture is clearly given, the audience can gain some insights into what makes the expert an expert. A good lecture does more than convey facts — it lays bare the cognitive processes that […]
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Every Teacher Can Be a STEM Teacher

“The Kind of STEM Teachers We Need,” by Carol Ann Tomlinson, Educational Leadership, Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015  Give me teachers in every subject who relentlessly cause kids to wonder. I’m great with the idea of STEM for all students. I get the need for a society to have a sustained crop of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and […]
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The Trouble With Khan Academy

By Robert Talbot, The Chronicle of Higher Education  It’s great for learning about a subject; inadequate for higher-level thinking. Let’s start with what Khan Academy is. Khan Academy is a collection of video lectures that give demonstrations of mechanical processes. When it comes to this purpose, KA videos are, on the average, pretty good. Sal […]
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Teachers As Performers

By Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR’s All Things Considered, 11/17/14 [Michael’s note: This story was part of the NPR Education Team’s fall series, “50 Great Teachers.” You can listen to the stories, see transcripts, and watch videos of the teachers in action at:] When Amanda Siepiola steps into her classroom, she channels two role models. “I’m […]
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