As technology becomes an increasingly important component in teaching, it is playing an essential role in professional development. In Education Week’s October publication, “Virtual PD Creates Connections,” Michelle Davis and Katie Ash discuss the benefits of a blended system of online and face-to-face professional development. This hybrid model allows teachers to receive small doses of PD digitally while meeting in person with PD professionals to synthesize the information in a more personal setting.
Online resources such as Edmodo and the PBS TeacherLine allow teachers to share ideas, view videos of expert teachers in the classroom, and take online courses, all according to their own schedules. The short length of these PD sessions allows teachers to handle topics as they need them. The blended approach can improve efficiency and effectiveness. Teachers can view video materials in advance to make their face-to-face time with instructors more productive.
Online resources may be especially useful as schools adopt the Common Core. As Ms. Ash points out, the total number of mathematics standards is small, only 28, but teaching them requires deeper exploration of each topic than most curricula currently provide. And since the same standards will be adopted by nearly every state, common core professional development will be applicable to teachers across state lines. With limited budgets, online forums are a useful tool for teachers trying to stay up to speed on the Common Core. The James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy is one of several providers of PD resources on the Common Core. The institute has developed a series of YouTube videos featuring background on the CCSS. And many more teacher-targeted curricular resources are being developed to address the standards. What types of professional development does your school use? What do you think is the most effective model for professional development?
A recent New York Times article, With Blocks, Educators Go Back to Basics
, explores the latest education trend in leading New York City public, private, and charter schools: the return of the block corner. In the past few years, parents and educators have been calling for more unstructured play in early childhood education, moving away from the rigorous academic programs that have dominated early education in the past few decades. The article attributes the “back in style” blocks to this recent resurgence in the critical role of play for healthy child development.
As this article from Sixty Second Parent suggests, there is no secret to why traditional wooden blocks can help young learners. Blocks can help develop pattern recognition and spatial reasoning. The tactile and visual stimulation from blocks reinforces the relationships between lines and shapes. Blocks in different sizes let children practice comparison skills.
In elementary grades, blocks are being used as foundational tools for math, science, social studies, and more. However, these schools are putting a 21st century twist on this block play. Some schools are using iPads and Flip Cameras to video block constructions and edit footage to create documentaries. At other schools, children are learning critical web navigation skills as they search for images or videos to inspire their block constructions.
Will the “blocks + technology” equation help us promote early interest in STEM learning? How far can this formula take children in their acquisition of 21st century skills? Or, do we need to simply use these blocks to bring play and discovery back into the classroom?
Harvard University recently released a study on Florida schools that investigates the impact of middle and high school transitions on school achievement. Though researchers have previously focused on the effects of high school transitions only, this study, as well as a 2010 study on New York City schools, reveals that the more critical school transition actually occurs during middle school.
The study shows that students who move to middle school in the 6th or 7th grade show a substantial drop in both reading and math achievement scores and these students’ achievement scores continue to decline through the rest of middle school. These students have lower school attendance rates and are almost 20% more likely to drop out of school by 10th grade. In contrast to the transition in middle school, students exhibit a smaller achievement drop when starting high school (9th grade) and their math and reading achievement scores tend to improve in 10th grade.
Why does this middle school transition cause such a significant achievement drop? The obvious assumption is that K-8 schools provide a higher quality education for students in 6th through 8th grade than do stand-alone middle schools. However, these researchers found little evidence to support this claim, instead suggesting that “being in the youngest cohort in a school adversely impacts student performance” and is “particularly costly” for middle school-aged children.
If it is more difficult for middle school students to achieve in environments that do not include younger students, does this call for a massive restructuring of our public schools to the K-8 school model? Are there ways to support students effectively through these structural transitions? If older students benefit from the “leadership roles” they can adopt in schools that include young students, can buddy systems and increased contact between stand-alone elementary and middle schools provide the same opportunities for leadership as does a K-8 school? Certainly more research needs to be conducted on the effects of these structural transitions and ways in which we can help prevent this achievement drop.
Many children have little patience to satisfy a want, especially when the rewards do not seem obvious. Math homework, for example, presents a challenge that stands between young students and their preferred after-school activities. Oftentimes, when the answer does not seem immediately apparent, students would prefer to give up or rush to the wrong answer rather than work through the problem. Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment in the 1960s demonstrated that some children have a stronger ability to delay rewards. Four-year-old children were placed in a room with a marshmallow and told if they waited for the experimenter to return, they could have two marshmallows. The children who were able to wait had higher SAT scores and academic results when tested several years later.
Recently in Newsweek, Sharon Begley and Jean Chatzky discuss the conundrum of spenders versus savers, people who would prefer to buy something now versus those who would save up for something big later. Scientists are starting to identify which regions of the brain connected to “saving,” specifically the prefrontal cortex (PFC). They have even figured out how to stimulate the PFC, which improves people’s ability to delay gratification.
While activating students’ PFCs might not be the immediate solution, there appear to be other ways to promote patience in exchange for a higher payoff. One of the challenges to both parents and educators is getting children to think into the future to see the benefits of motivation and hard work. A student that I tutor dreads doing her math homework because it does not come easily to her. She would always prefer to work on Spanish, a subject in which she excels. She struggles to see that focusing on math will improve her success in the subject and make it much more enjoyable. Fortunately, research by psychologist Warren Bickel of Virginia Tech suggests that improving working memory boosts people’s ability to develop longer time horizons. And with practice, children can learn that hard work in the present will result in better outcomes in the future.
Waiting for this higher payoff requires some practice and training, but the skill of delaying gratification can be developed, a hopeful sign for math education. While tricks and shortcuts get students to the answer more quickly, they often come at the cost of understanding core concepts. If we can improve students’ working memory and time preferences, they will become more successful math learners in the long term.