Monday, March 21, 2016

Teaching Mathematics is a Cultural Activity!

Exactly one year ago today, my colleague Matt Larson and I met in Sacramento, CA at the end of a long day, to hammer out was to become our newest book to be released this month: Balancingthe Equation – A Guide to School Mathematics for Educators and Parents.  

This April, Matt is about to become President of NCTM, and I have a lot of respect for Matt, but when he originally pitched the idea for the book, I thought he was a bit off his rocker! 

We should write a book for both Parents and Educators?

A book that cuts through all of the rhetoric and frankly the misinformation floating around about what great mathematics learning experiences should be for each and every child?

A book that addresses the history of mathematics education in the United States and how dangerous 200 years of extreme swings of the pendulum has disadvantaged adults and children alike?

A book, that provides informed research and attacks uniformed opinions? 

A book that helps the reader separate the lies from the truth about the current state of mathematics education in this country, provides meaningful advice to parents and to teachers, and suggests a pathway for a better tomorrow?

“Yes”, he said, “A book like that.”

We were just starting, and I was exhausted!

And so our journey began. Co-published by Solution Tree and NCTM, the book will be released this April. And there is a lot in the book that you can use at your next neighborhood party. You know when the topic about that darn new math program creeps up: Why is it so different from my experiences at school? 
Here is an excerpt from Balancing the Equation  inspired by a message given by Dr. Richard DuFour of PLC fame during his keynote address at the PLC At Work institutes during the summer of 2015. 

As we have discussed throughout this book, teaching is a cultural activity—mathematics teaching, in particular. As Hiebert writes in The constantly underestimated challenge of improving mathematics instruction (2013)
Instructional strategies for teaching mathematics are not invented new by each teacher. Methods of teaching are handed down from one generation to the next. . . . [Teachers] acquire their training by observing what their teachers do. . . The methods they use to teach—the ways in which they interact with students around content—are likely to be determined by their own experiences as students in K–12 classrooms. (p. 52)

Hiebert was referring to how mathematics teachers learn to teach and develop their beliefs concerning effective mathematics instruction. We contend this argument also applies to all adults in the United States as they have also experienced classroom mathematics instruction.

In fact, most high school graduates have experienced around 1,500 hours of mathematics instruction. This creates a powerful cultural expectation for mathematics teaching and learning among the general public that does not exist for other professions.

Consider a physician. Most physicians in the United States did not grow up during their formative years observing a physician at work for one hundred eighty days per year for thirteen straight years. Consequently, we do not have the same sort of expectation for how a physician does his or her job that we do for mathematics teachers. Therefore, we trust the professional expertise of the physician who is treating us, and in fact, expect that our physician is up to date with current research and treatment protocols. When physicians use the latest and most effective research-informed treatment protocols, most of us do not push back and demand that they instead treat us with leeches.

Because mathematics teaching and learning is a cultural activity, we do resist change. This is natural, as cultures exist in part to resist change—to pass on current practices and beliefs to the next generation (Stigler & Thompson, 2009). However, this also impedes progress toward improving mathematics teaching and learning. Often, when educators, schools, and districts attempt to implement research-informed practices, including some of the research-informed instructional strategies we have outlined here, some parents (as well as some educators) resist that change because it doesn’t conform to their beliefs and cultural expectations for mathematics teaching and learning.

As a result, as James Stigler and Belinda Thompson (2009) argue, we are still conducting certain aspects of mathematics instruction as we have for centuries, even though the importance of mathematics education to students’ future success, what we know about teaching and learning mathematics, and the students themselves have all dramatically changed. You wouldn’t want your physician to treat you today the way physicians would have treated their patients decades or even centuries ago. The same should be true with respect to our expectations for mathematics teaching and learning in this decade.

So, as educators and parents how can we overcome the inertia of the past so that our students receive a more balanced mathematical education (Thus the title, get it?) that likely differs from the one we received ourselves and graduate more mathematically proficient?

Well, to get those answers you will have to read the book! We did our best. And we hope you will agree. Maybe this will help you at that next party!! 

Hiebert, J. (2013). The constantly underestimated challenge of improving mathematics  instruction. In K. R. Leatham (Ed.), Vital directions for mathematics education research (pp. 45–56). New York: Springer.

Stigler, J. W., & Thompson, B. J. (2009). Thoughts on creating, accumulating, and utilizing shareable knowledge to improve teaching. Elementary School Journal, 109(5), 442–457.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

We are our Experiences!

It was September of 2010 and we were walking along the long stretch of beach in Mission Bay, near San Diego CA. He described to me how he and his wife had gone to see a Doctor as he was starting to forget things. He was 73, so I am thinking, “Who doesn’t forget things as he or she gets older”?

Only this was different. He was very scared.

He could not pass certain memory tests. You know, the ones where they give you a list of 10 animals, make you repeat them one at a time, then ask you to now name as many as you can remember? Lists like that. Word lists and number lists. And he was a pretty bright guy. He was a writer and a teacher, a technology geek, and a deep thinker, all of his life. Something was changing though.

We walked a long way that day. Miles on that beach. We laughed and cried, got angry and tender. We prayed, and wondered why. In modern day terms we were BFF’s. Thick as thieves. We had been though 35 years of life together – leaning on one another during good and bad.

And that day on the beach, we had a beer together as the sun was setting, looking for that “Green Flash” moment as the Sun sets down on the horizon.  Not this time though. No green flash. Not ever again. We had no idea what was really ahead.

What does it mean to start down the road of early onset Alzheimer’s? It is a road that once entered; you cannot choose a different path. And the road takes you to places your friends and your family will not be allowed to go. You will not know if they are there or not. You will not be able to respond the way you want. You and they will learn to let go. And, it will be painful. 

Moving through the Stages of Alzheimer’s has a different rate of speed for different people. In his case, it was a five-year journey for my friend. There was plenty of time for some great and sweet memories before it was too late, but gradually his movements become more and more restricted. His ability to communicate and to respond became gradually limited. It sneaks up on you, one day at a time and then it finally ends.

In his case, that was January 13th, 2016. We just finished with 2 days of celebrating his life. More than 600 people showed up, and I am sure there would have been so many more had those at the national level not been trapped by the crazy distance caused by mid-winter storms. Chicago can be a tough place to get to sometimes.

He and his wife were local heroes in the community. Long time members in faith and in friends across so many professions and personal experiences. At the celebration of his life, USC Theologian Dallas Willard (2013) was quoted:

A person is essentially a collection of conscious experiences. Far more than just bodies or just appetites, we are our experiences. That is why we treasure the good ones.

He was my treasure; my collection of experiences with him will forever be part of the good ones I get in this life. And, my experiences with him have shaped me into the hope of being a better teacher and leader for others tomorrow.

If you have read this blog entry this far, you might wonder why would I write about this experience in my professional blog for educators? I suppose because I had so much respect for him as a math teacher and leader. I just felt the need to place some thoughts together. I suppose it is cathartic for me as well, as I process losing a best friend. Something that is just so very human. 

But what is in it for you? The reader? Well, I suppose that you too, have a BFF. Maybe more than one. And whether it is this year or 20 years from now, you too will go through the stages of losing that BFF, and just maybe Dallas Willards’ words will lift you up. Or just maybe, those words will remind you today – and every day - to treasure those good experiences with that BFF of yours. 

Today, in the middle of the winter in so many parts of our country, I just simply wanted to let the world know, that Jerry Joe Cummins - mathematics educator extraordinaire – was one of those really really really good ones. I treasure every moment I was given to share my life with him as I know so do hundreds of others. 

I hope the same for you with your family, friends and colleagues as well.

Treasure those good experiences – even in the middle of a crazy week this week.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Unwelcome Guests of the Holiday Season!

It has been two years.

And the pain still lingers in the recesses of my mind.

My dear friend and colleague of 22 years, High School mathematics teacher extraordinaire Mary Layco, passed away unexpectedly on December 26th, 2013. And the holiday reminds me of the loss. And, the love I had and have for her. Is it selfish, I wonder, to move on and to enjoy many of the more positive “Hallmark Moments” that can and should be part of this holiday season with friends and with family?

The holiday also represents a time for a vacation. A much needed break ahead. I know there are readers of this blog glad they made it to and through last Friday – on the fumes of what little work energy they had left. Ready for a mid –year break from the pressure cooker of a 2015-2016 school year.

I try not to dwell on it, but it is both the curse and the blessing of this time of the year. The Holiday season can be such a wonderful and enjoyable respite with family and friends. 2015 ends as 2016 begins in a blink of the eye. It is a season often filled with renewal and new hope.

And yet, it is also a season that can bring unwelcome “guests” into our homes and our lives.

Those guests include unreasonably high expectations of pleasing others, shifting or changing rituals and traditions, painful reminders of the recent loss of loved ones, grudges and grievances with family members or neighbors, pressure to hurry up and donate time or money before the year ends, gift giving decisions, unhealthy eating habits, and the potential for overspending, all have the potential to come to our doorstep over the next 2 weeks. These unfriendly guests can overwhelm us at the holiday if we are not careful. Sheesh, everything becomes so hyper focused.

And, the reality rarely outpaces the hype. Where and how exactly did the word “holiday” (as in vacation) get lost in the translation of expectations during this season?

So, what can we do? How do we make this 2015 end of year Holiday as enjoyable as possible? Well, as I said to a remarkable group of leaders from Wayne Co Michigan last week, you need to find some intentional Quadrant II low energy time over the next two weeks. Give yourself that gift this holiday. And do it every day.

Here are some suggestions:

Get outside, let it all go, and just go for a walk! Alone! Find a place to hide for 2 hours and read a book! Sleep! Go to a movie! Find grace and give it freely to others! Dance! Listen to your favorite itunes songs and belt them out if you dare! Find laughter in the simplest activities with your family! Don't expect perfection! Hold on to rituals, but accept they might be changing as your family grows and changes too! Use lots of exclamations points! Oh, did I mention sleep?

But back to my more spiritual connection to Mary Layco, which these days include too, my thoughts about best friend and colleague of 37 years, Jerry Cummins (Now residing in an Alzheimer’s center, and living at the most acute stage seven of the disease). How do I honor Mary’s life in my memory? Will I take the time to honor Jerry’s life and all that it has meant to me? Or will I be too busy and wrapped up in the emotional drag of those unwelcome guests this year? Important people cross our paths, and the holiday can bring a rough reminder of why we loved them so much, against the backdrop and pain of missing them too.

So, I have decided that this season, I will sit with their memories in my mind, in the quiet hours before dusk. And in those quiet moments, I will allow myself to pull them in to the recesses of my heart and my thoughts. I will quietly and intentionally embrace them, and embrace the pain and sadness of missing these welcomed guests of so many wonderful years, by finding the joy of who they are and were as fellow travelers in this crazy fast paced, mixed up and now instant gratification social media world we live in.

I will intentionally enjoy the warmth of what was once their deep friendship. I will celebrate them as I slow down and fiercely deny all of those unwanted holiday guests that can potentially rob me of being the kind of person you would want to be around this season. I will laugh because of the gift their lives once gave me.

I will laugh because of the gifts of the wacky family and friends that continue to love me for one reason or another. I will stand strong against those other "unwelcome guests” by giving myself some grace, so that I can be a better me for them this holiday season and just maybe into 2016 too.  

This season, be intentional about finding your place to get quiet. Every day. Think about whom you need to embrace? What memory gift of joy do you need to give yourself in the quiet moments of this season? I think it is the best gift you can give not just to yourself, but also to others, as those unwanted guests are left outside of your door this season.

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Tis the Season - Seeking Clarity in the Classroom!

This past week, while working with my colleagues in Green Bay Wisconsin and with so many wonderful and hard-working teachers, I was asked an interesting question that took me a bit by surprise and caused me to pause for a brief minute.

“Dr. Kanold, you have had a big influence on our thinking and our practice, but who do you look to? Who have you learned from? Who has influenced your thinking?”

As I hesitated to respond, my first teaching job (1973 -1979) flooded back into my memory. I was the only math teacher at a small rural high school south of Rockford, Illinois. There were no colleagues or daily sources to influence the focus of my work. No Internet. No social media. No Cell phones. Ha! In some cases, no phones period!

I had no idea how to measure my effectiveness.

I was often panicked about whether I was making an impact as a teacher. The routine of teaching all day, going to practice (coaching) for 3 hours, starting a young family, and then getting ready for the next day had a sort of exhaustion to it. I was working really hard, but my lessons - my efforts to “explain” the topics I was teaching – often seemed to confuse my students. In short, I lacked clarity.

Was it me or was it them, I wondered.

Unbeknownst to me, there was a national “Teacher Effectiveness” movement sweeping our country during the 70’s (This later fed a “School Effectiveness” movement during the 1980’s). It was a decade that closely examined “Teacher Moves” that made a significant impact on student learning. (Connecting teacher actions to student learning was a novel idea at the time). What was revealed during the Teacher Effectiveness movement were lesson design elements, that quite frankly are very similar to what we teach today – more than 40 years later.

Aware of my own shortcomings I had gone back to school part time to take some night classes through the University of Illinois. My professor for my very first class was a man named Barak Rosenshine. Yes, THE Barak Rosenshine. I had no idea at the time who he was, or how he was helping to define the blueprint descriptors of highly effective teaching actions. What I did know was that he provided for me, a holy grail for my work. Above all my other early influences, Rosenshine was certainly the best and brightest I knew.

Who is/was he? Well, check out this news article, What Characterizes an EffectiveTeacher? An exclusive interview with Barak Rosenshine (2002). 

I know many of you have heard me speak or read my work more than once over the years, and you will notice all of the swords I have fallen on in understanding the best there is for effective teaching practice dates back to and has morphed from that Tuesday night class, a long long time ago.

By 1986 (my 13th year in teaching) Rosenshine and Stevens (1986) summarized their research and concluded that effective teachers:

Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning
Begin a lesson with a short statement of goals
Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations
Provide a high level of active practice for all students
Provide systematic feedback and corrections

By 2000, I reframed these ideas into what I termed as the most essential elements of teacher clarity. Followed by the 12 Essential Lesson Design Questions (EDQ’s) for highly effective teachers (2010). In this blog I address the issues of clarity from 2000, and in my next blog, I will go deeper into the 12 EDQ’s from 2010.  

Are there actual teacher moves that can enhance clarity of the lesson for students? The answer is a resounding yes!  Rooted deeply in the discoveries of Rosenshine and his colleagues in the late 70's and into the 80's.

Essential Teacher Moves That Impact Clarity

1. Frame the Lesson  - Lessons should not appear as if they drop out of the sky with no connection to what content was before or ahead. Teachers that ask, “What have we done so far, in this Unit? How does that impact what we need to learn today? What will we see over the rest of this week? What might you expect today’s lesson to be about?” promote clarity for their students at the beginning and end of a lesson by providing context. How will the lesson be connected to student prior knowledge? How will students be expected to connect the lesson to their prior knowledge?

2. State and Overstate the Standards  Excessively. During the lesson. Ask your students to constantly re-state the learning target (orally and in writing) for the lesson. Connect the standard of the day, to each task for the day, explaining the connection, and why you chose that task. Require students to state (in I can student friendly language) the actual standard for the lesson, as part of a student led summary at the end of the lesson.

3. Label, Label, Label! – Too much of what students “Hear” from their teacher is not also placed in writing – so they can “see” your words. Label everything you do. Name the examples, provide in writing the nuggets of wisdom that pour out of your mouth during the lesson. Why is the example, idea or project important? Why is it relevant and meaningful? Why did you think that way? Place the why in writing! How will your thinking be labeled for the students? How will the students know your thinking if they can't process oral communication as well as others? How will students be expected to label their work in their notebooks? This really supports your ESL students in class. 

4. Precision of Teacher Language – Ask a colleague to come to your class and do nothing but write down every word and direction that flows from your mouth during the lesson. Take a close look at vague words or phrases, such as “Okay”, “You kinda should do this”, or “It is sorta like this”, or  “You might want to think about” Are your directions clear? Do students actually do what you tell them to do? Also, part of this clarity issue, is the vocabulary – your modeling of precise use of the language, and the impact it has on student use of the vocabulary. During class, what do you hear your students saying to one another? Is it precise, or vague? Can they clearly state the learning target for example or articulate their reasoning out loud?

5. Small Step Instruction  – You should present new material in small steps, providing for student practice after each step of whole group instruction. Think of it as blended discourse during the student learning of the lesson. The teacher constantly moves back and forth between whole group and small group discourse as essential elements of the lesson unfold. Clear lessons do not overwhelm the students, and have this built in formative check for understanding that gives students time to process the meaning of the content for that days’ lesson.

Consider this from Rosenshine (1986 and again in 2002):  

            First, there's the notion of teaching new material in small steps so that the learning process isn't   overloaded by getting too much at once. We have found that the most effective teachers, those teachers whose classes made the highest yearly gain, provided this support by teaching new material in manageable amounts, modeling, guiding student practice, helping students when they made errors, and providing for sufficient practice and review.  

Today there is exhaustive research and modern day language about effective teaching as we approach 2016. And although I might not agree with everything Rosenshine had to say to me 40 years ago, in that Tuesday night class, I know from my own teaching experience, that these elements of clarity will improve your teaching, but more importantly improve the level of student learning in your class.

Wishing you the best in the clarity journey as you reflect and renew this holiday season!