Author Joy Hurd

Remembering to Strengthen Your Memory

Ever since reading Moonwalking with Einstein last summer, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the workings of memory. Maybe not so obsessed that I’ve made great gains in my own memorization ability, but as I prepare to return to the classroom, I’m eager to teach my students how to improve their own memories. I know that a good number of educators today think that memorization is an evil word–the stuff of a bygone and regrettable era in schooling. But I disagree. For example, I teach Latin, and vocabulary words must be learned. Yes, you can learn foreign vocabulary words through context rather than through drills, but in a (mostly) unspoken language like Latin, you would have to endure frustratingly slow progress. Historical facts must be learned so that students can think and write critically about events, people, etc. Characters and details of novels must be committed to memory so that you can make connections between different works. We have to have knowledge before we can analyze it. Even in the era of Google, the knowledge we have in our heads goes a long way. Just ask cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

There are a few things that cognitive scientists have found to be especially helpful for committing information to long-term memory:

  1. the spacing effect – Study something, then wait a good amount of time, then study it again. That’s not meant to encourage cramming for an exam by reviewing a semester’s worth of material the night before. Rather, regularly revisit old material. Every time you do, you are moving it closer to long-term memory.

  2. the testing effect – We tend to think of tests as things that evaluate how much we know. Instead, we should think of how powerfully testing can enhance our learning while we’re trying to learn it. After you’ve studied something, take a test on it, or write down everything you remember about it. Short-answer tests work better than multiple choice tests, but any kind of review test helps. Retrieving information more often helps it stick in your memory. Flashcards essentially work on this principle, but flashcards, though effective, have a good number of shortcomings.

  3. interleaving – I wrote about this in an earlier post, where I focused on math and grammar. But it could help with learning just about anything. When you make your review tests, change the format of the test questions. It’ll help keep you on your cognitive toes while you’re learning. The more you have to concentrate, the more effectively you learn.

  4. elaborative encoding – Everyone had at least one teacher who encouraged the use of mnemonics. For algebra, PEMDAS. Or for taxonomy, “Kings Play Cards On Fat Green Stools” (Kingdom, Phyllum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species). Mnemonics are just one way of encoding information into your memory for later retrieval. Or you might associate information with images you create in your mind (as Joshua Foer describes in Moonwalking with Einstein). The more complex, specific, and emotional you make your memory cue, the more effectively you might remember it.

I mention all these things because there are two new websites that are trying to bring the science of memory to the masses. I learned about Memrise through a great article by Joshua Foer. It is designed to be a playful, fun place to learn new facts. It presents information, then quizzes you on what you just learned. The question formats are interleaved–sometimes they’re multiple choice, sometimes short answer. It also provides “mems”–its term for methods of elaborative encoding. Some mems are provided in different lessons, but you are also encouraged to create your own by uploading pictures, typing hints, etc. The process of committing information to long-term memory is based on a gardening metaphor. First, you “plant” new information (e.g., new Spanish vocabulary, the capital cities of foreign countries), by studying the information and being immediately quizzed on it. Elaborative encoding for each new item, followed by a series of questions to help you remember better. It uses some hidden algorithms to decide when the right time has passed for you to revisit your new knowledge and “harvest” it. You get an email urging you to revisit what you learned a few days earlier, so you log in and get quizzed once again–the spacing effect in action. From then on, you “water” your knowledge by going back again and again. If you miss a question on the quiz, the site drills that question and answer into your memory by bringing it up more often. The site essentially creates adaptive flashcards, but unlike flashcards, Memrise doesn’t allow you to sorta, almost, kinda get the answer and convince yourself you know it. It’s also set up like a game where you get points for studying and getting answers right, and each lesson has a leaderboard listing others who are studying the same material.

The other site, Cerego, is a little less warm (no gardening metaphor this time), but equally scientific (perhaps even more so, at least as the marketing suggests). It takes advantage of these same basic memory principles, but so far I haven’t gotten any email reminders to “harvest” my learning. It uses a cool chart to graph how strong your memories are and how much progress you’ve made. At the moment it’s in an invite-only beta phase, but it’s worth asking for an invitation if you’re interested. I waited a couple months to finally be invited, but I’m guessing that the speed is picking up. I concede that I’ve spent more time on Memrise than I have on Cerego, so I need to commit more time to Cerego before I evaluate it any more.


Most of what we think we know about our memories is, well, wrong. There is science to the way memory works, and these two sites offer not only ways to understand how memorization works but also ways to effectively commit things to long-term memory. Overall, these are very well-done websites with a lot of potential for teachers and students. They also stress the incremental nature of learning: it’s better to work little by little over a long period of time than to try to cram everything into your brain in one, last-minute cram sesh. Here’s hoping that my students next year will use these sites and stop with all the cramming. But I know as well as anyone that old habits tend to die hard.

Some Memory Resources from “The Literature”:

Butler, A.C. & Roediger, H.L. (2007). Testing improves long-term retention in a simulated classroom setting. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 514-527.

Cepeda, N.J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J.T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. In Psychological Science, 19 (11).

Karpicke, J.D. & Roediger, H.L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. In Science, 319, 966.

McDaniel, M.A., Howard, D.C., & Einstein, G.O. (2009). The read-recite-review study strategy: Effective and portable. In Psychological Science, 20, 4.

Pashler, H., Rohrer, D., Cepeda, N.J., & Carpenter, S.K. (2007). Enhancing learning and retarding forgetting: Choices and consequences. In Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14 (2), 187-193.

Rohrer, D. & Pashler, H. (2010). Recent research on human learning challenges: Conventional instructional strategies. In Educational Researcher, 39, 5, 406-412.

Schwartz, B.L., Son, L.K., Kornell, N., & Finn, B. (2011). Four principles of memory improvement: A guide to improving learning efficiency. In The International Journal of Creativity & Problem Solving, 21(1), 7-15.

Willingham, D. (2008-2009, Winter). What will improve a student’s memory? In American Educator, Winter, 17-25.

Fonts and Thinking

We aren’t terribly good at judging how well we’re learning something. Part of that problem results from our tendency to believe that we are learning “better” when we can follow along with ideas more easily. If something seems easy, then of course we’ll remember it. Or so we tend to think.

It turns out that we learn better when we are having a harder time learning something. There are even some very simple things we can do to make learning just a little more difficult, and therefore more effective and long-lasting. What we want are “desirable difficulties,” as Time education writer Annie Murphy Paul says. She explains the importance of making lessons and material just the right difficulty in just the right way:

When we work hard to understand information, we recall it better; the extra effort signals the brain that this knowledge is worth keeping. This phenomenon, known as cognitive disfluency, promotes learning so effectively that psychologists have devised all manner of “desirable difficulties” to introduce into the learning process: for example, sprinkling a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking font size until it’s tiny or wiggling a document while it’s being copied so that words come out blurry.

That last part is the most interesting to me. Chances are that most teachers pay little attention to the font they use in the materials they create for their classes. Or, if they do, they might just choose the most aesthetically pleasing (my favorite has long been Garamond–a “noble font” as my high school friend used to say). But as teachers, we can actually help induce deeper concentration in our students by choosing a font that is hard to read, but not too hard to read. Using an unfamiliar, hard-to-read font helps the brain remember text far more effectively than do italicized, bold, or large fonts.

Here’s Benedict Carey in a NYT article he wrote back in April 2011:

In a recent study published in the journal Cognition, psychologists at Princeton and Indiana University had 28 men and women read about three species of aliens, each of which had seven characteristics, like “has blue eyes,” and “eats flower petals and pollen.” Half the participants studied the text in 16-point Arial font, and the other half in 12-point Comic Sans MS or 12-point Bodoni MT, both of which are relatively unfamiliar and harder for the brain to process.

After a short break, the participants took an exam, and those who had studied in the harder-to-read fonts outperformed the others on the test, 85.5 percent to 72.8 percent, on average.

The same is true for studying material multiple times but spreading out your study sessions. You might think that waiting a long time between studying sessions–and the ensuing difficulty you have remembering things the second time around–means that it’s a waste of time. Wrong. Carey’s article again:

“For example, we know that if you study something twice, in spaced sessions, it’s harder to process the material the second time, and people think it’s counterproductive,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “But the opposite is true: You learn more, even though it feels harder. Fluency is playing a trick on judgment.”

So try going for some seldom-used fonts on your next worksheet or outline. It might very well help your students in ways they won’t expect. Use Comic Sans or Apple Chancery or Noteworthy. Probably best, however, to avoid all the members of the Wingdings family. Some fonts are just weirder than they are useful.



Discipline is remembering what you really want

“Discipline is remembering what you want.” – David Campbell, founder of Saks Fifth Avenue

I came across this quotation a week ago in some reading for my strategic marketing class. I loved it and immediately tweeted it, but for some reason I remembered it wrong. In my mind the line became “Discipline is remembering what you really want,” and I kinda like it better that way. When I have lapses in my self-discipline, it’s because I do what I want in the short term (e.g., sleep in) instead of what I really want for myself (e.g., wake up early, seize the day, etc.).

I consider myself a pretty disciplined person, but not as disciplined as I’d like to be. I have a habit of launching new initiatives of self-discipline on a somewhat regular basis–every couple months or so. From now on, I tell myself, you’re going to get up early, exercise, read non-stop, eat healthy, and so on. And it works for a few days, but then the naps creep in, along with the pizza and the new TV show that I just have to see because everyone’s talking about it. It’s hard to keep your eye on long-term goals when the idea of sleeping in or watching just one more episode of “Game of Thrones” is so, so appealing in the moment. I’m much better at wanting to be disciplined than actually being disciplined, but I suppose that’s pretty common. After all, that’s why so many gym memberships are sold in January every year.

We all want to be at least a little more disciplined, I think. We all have a gap between the people we are and the people we want or hope to be. In fact, the hope of helping students to narrow that gap is one of the primary reasons I teach. At its core, education is–or at least should be–about maximizing and realizing our potential, and self-discipline is a huge part of doing that. Identifying and sticking to long-term goals is how great achievements–and even small and medium achievements–are achieved. Students have to recognize what kinds of people they want to be, and they need the guidance and self-discipline to get there.

Every Thursday I mentor a student at a fairly new, small school in Harlem. The student really wants to improve his conduct and his academic performance, and so I told him about this quotation that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. At first, he understood “discipline” to be only about punishment for misbehavior. I can’t blame him for that misinterpretation. For many students, after all, that’s what the word discipline means in their lives. We had a good talk about the difference between that kind of discipline and self-discipline. If he really wants to improve his in-class conduct, I said, then he has to take it one class at a time. He might want to laugh loudly at his friend’s joke and risk getting a demerit, but what he really wants is to get the best possible marks this term, so he should keep his laughter to himself. Maybe this David Campbell line (with the added “really”) will help him during those moments when he wants to give in to impulse. I certainly hope so.

I’m also hoping that I can stick with my current self-discipline initiative. It’s pretty simple: wake up at 5 every morning (easier on weekdays than weekends), run down and up my stairs twice each morning (from the 21st floor–it helps ease my back pain), and add more fruit and vegetables to my diet. I’m also using to brush up on some basic Spanish (more on Memrise in a future post). They’re not overly ambitious goals, but goals don’t have to be ambitious to be abandoned. I really want to do these things, and discipline is about remembering that. It’s all about looking out for my future self, who is relying pretty heavily on the decisions my present self makes.


Loss Aversion and Schools

Traditional economic models hold that we, being the rational beings we are, love getting things just as much as we hate losing them. Not actually the case, as Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and others have pointed out. We are far more sensitive to actual and perceived losses than we are to gains.

What does this mean in practice? Well, it means all kinds of things, and in Kahneman’s words, “The concept of loss aversion is certainly the most significant contribution of psychology to behavioral economics” (300). If you compare the goodness (i.e., utility) of gaining two dollars with the badness (i.e., disutility) of losing two dollars, losing two dollars carries greater weight in our minds because we are more loss averse. We feel the pain of loss more deeply than we celebrate gains. Some might react to tax cuts with a smile and relief, but they might then react to tax hikes with pitchforks and protests (tax cuts being seen as a gain, tax hikes as a loss) . It’s an interesting asymmetry, with many consequences.

This loss aversion works at deep levels of our consciousness. Kahneman cites a study of golf putts by Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer at the University of Pennsylvania. They compared the success rates of golfers putting for a birdie with those of golfers putting to avoid a bogey. If you look at a birdie as a “gain” and a bogey as a “loss” (with par seen as breaking even), then you can see loss aversion at work here. After analyzing 2.5 million putts (!), Pope and Schweitzer found that golfers putting for par (i.e., avoiding the “loss” of a bogey) were 3.6% more successful than those putting or a birdie. Though it might seem small, that’s an enormous difference of more than 90,000 successful putts. It’s also one of the clearest, most interesting, most powerful illustrations of loss aversion that I’ve read.

How can the idea of loss aversion affect educational practice? One general way lies just in rethinking how we frame and conceive of things. Let’s say, for example, that your school has mandatory study hall, which students can liberate themselves from after one term of good grades. In that way, liberation from the study hall might be seen as a gain of more free time–a motivating incentive, right? But loss aversion would suggest that students might be more motivated to escape study hall in the first place (i.e., avoid losing their free time to study hall). Let’s say that only students with low grades after the first few weeks have to attend study hall, and you publicize that fact quite clearly. Research suggests that in this framework students will work much harder and seek more extra help to avoid the loss of free time that study hall represents.

I’ve also been playing around with how assessment practices could incorporate loss aversion. In such a framework assessment might end up looking something like scoring golf. First, we’d need clear rubrics for every type of assignment we give. Students would have to know exactly what the minimum expectations for an assignment should be, and the bar should be set high. Think of it as “par” for every assignment. If students meet all expectations, their grade stays the same. If they exceed expectations, their grade goes up one or two points. But if they fail to meet expectations, their grade decreases a bit, depending on how many standards they failed to meet.

In order for this to work, however, all students have to start with some grade that they can work to defend against loss. It’s up to the teacher, of course, what that number should be. In my mind I’ve been playing around with the number 90 (on a 0-100 scale), but maybe that just shows that I’m the product of a grade-inflated generation. Maybe it should be 85. Or lower. I don’t know–it’s open for discussion. It needs to be high enough for students to want to preserve it, but not so high that everyone walks away with A’s just for meeting expectations.

If the theory of loss aversion holds true, then such a grading system should be a powerful motivator for students. Students who need to get an A+ on everything have a way to aim high. Students who often struggle start the term with a high grade and a high incentive to keep working hard. This is not a fully formed idea, I concede, but I think it has some potential. I also recognize that this idea resides within a fairly traditional school framework, with grades, teacher-generated rubrics, etc. As with all my ideas, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that many other people have already thought of it. If so, I’d love to hear about other people who might be doing something similar.

Works Cited

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.


Jenna Marks: Our Newest Team Member


Hello! My name is Jenna Marks, and I am the newest addition to the rethinkED team.  I dove headfirst to this group, and I’ve been reading the philosophy of design thinking for educators (DT4E) and sifting through the inspiring work that rethinkED has done so far.

As an academic, I am interesting in bridging the divide research and practice, which makes me very well-suited for this team and the work we do. I’m working towards an Ed.D. in Communications in Education, and my research interests include 1) how we can use technology to facilitate meaningful learning, 2) how adding game mechanics to the learning paradigm can make it more fun and engaging, and 3) the potential for “learning by doing” to cultivate 21st century literacies. I currently teach first grade robotics in an afterschool program and work in labs conducting research on the topics I just mentioned. I also have a background in social/cognitive psychology and have done research on intergroup interaction and prejudice in higher education. I am excited to contribute my unique perspective to the work we do here.

I began my review of the team by reading our manifesto, and proudly (alone in my own apartment) exclaimed “heck, yeahh!” I am truly excited to be a part of this team, and I love everything that we aim for. As I’ve just mentioned, rethinkED is amazing in that it’s the bridge between worlds. In every discipline I’ve worked in, the biggest failure is that there is a lack of communication between cogs in the machine. RethinkED connects research with practice. The rethinkED team has experience with teaching and a relationship with teachers that promotes mutual learning and beneficial outcomes, rather than frustration and assumptions that the other side “doesn’t get it.”

While by no means a magic pill, DT4E looks as though it can remedy many of the problems in our education system and seems to be a promising method for helping teachers to form curriculum that will meet the 21st century needs of their students. I’ve heard of the debate about whether teaching is an art or a science, and- from what I’ve surmised- DT4E suggests that the teacher is a designer (somewhat melding the two). While research shows that design thinking is great for students to use in the classroom, rethinkED works at the level of the educator, helping him or her to use design thinking to better their ability to teach.

My experience so far has involved many google hangouts, a lot of reading, and my first trip to Riverdale, where Joy and I met with Karen Fierst to discuss an exciting new project for the spring. I am excited to catch up, become a more prominent voice within the team, and to work with teachers to help them develop new and exciting innovations for their classrooms.

Interleaving Impossible Problems

In an earlier post I discussed the potential benefits of interleaving problems and questions in homework assignments.

Another interleaving-related idea came to me as I was reading a chapter from the National Research Council’s How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000). Chapter 2, “How Experts Differ from Novices” discusses the different ways that novices and experts approach problems. The chapter quotes a study by Paige and Simon (1966), in which experts and students were asked to solve algebra word problems like this one:

A board was sawed into two pieces. One piece was two-thirds as long as the whole board and was exceeded in length by the second piece by four feet. How long was the board before it was cut? (Paige and Simon, 1966, quoted in How People Learn, p. 41)

It turns out, of course, that this problem is impossible. Experts realize that quickly, while students try to figure out and apply the right procedure to get the answer without realizing the logical impossibility of it all.

What if students had to deal with impossible problems interleaved into their homework assignments, quizzes, and tests? Would we think that cruel? Or would it help prevent students from going on math-procedure autopilot while they work? What if they were told that one or two of the problems in their assignment were impossible? Would having them be on their guard and encouraging them to really read the problem help them or discourage them?

I think teachers could use impossible problems in a fun way that encourages students to work for a deeper understanding of what they’re solving. It might be all in the way things are framed. What do you think?

Interleaving and Grit

Screen Shot 2012-12-28 at 11.07.54 AMI’m intrigued by the idea of interleaving. I know, I know, it looks like a typo. I must have meant “interweaving”… When I first read of interleaving, I was sure that the authors had typed it wrong. It’s a weird word, but a cool, simple concept to incorporate into your teaching.

So what is interleaving? I tried for a while to come up with my own concise definition of it, but I couldn’t do any better than Rohrer and Pashler (2010) did, so I’ll leave it to them:

If multiple kinds of skills must be learned, the opportunities to
practice each skill may be ordered in two very different ways:
blocked by type (e.g., aaabbbccc) or interleaved (e.g., abcbcacab).
Until recently, experimental comparisons of blocked and inter-
leaved practice had been limited to studies of motor skill learn-
ing, where it has been found that interleaving increases learning
(Carson & Wiegand, 1979; Hall, Domingues, & Cavazos, 1994;
Landin, Hebert, & Fairweather, 1993; Shea & Morgan, 1979).

Rohrer and Pashler expand on their mention of “motor skill learning” and discuss how much better it is for a batter to practice against different pitches in different orders, instead of doing a block of fastballs, a block of curveballs, etc. Presumably, interleaving is better for the pitcher as well. Interleaving keeps athletes on their toes and thereby sharpens their skills.

But how could interleaving help learning in the classroom? One easy way to incorporate interleaving is to alter the structure of math and language homework. A lot of practice assignments in math and language rely on blocked drills (e.g., a long series of Spanish words to be translated into English, then a long series of the opposite), but students might benefit from having to face different types of problems as they go (e.g., one English–>Spanish translation, followed by a Spanish–>English one).

Remember homework assignments from your math book when you were a kid? In my math books, I had to do a few problems from section A, a few problems from section B, and a few problems from section C. In each section, the problems were blocked–they were basically the same, addressing the same skill, just with different numbers thrown in. At times I could more or less go on autopilot and perform the same procedure without thinking too hard. When I finished one section and went on to the next, I had to readjust my procedure to the skills being tested in that section. And so on.

If I were interleaving, however, I might have done a problem from section A, followed by one from section B, followed by one from C, then back to B, then to C, then to A. Or something like that, which would keep me on my cognitive toes.

So let’s say I was designing a grammar assignment for my students. I could have them circle the direct objects in a series of five sentences, then move on to circling the subjects in a series of five different sentences. Maybe a third section of five sentences would require them to circle all the indirect objects.

That would be the blocking way of doing things, and that is exactly what I used to do (the grammar book I designed can bear witness to my unthinking tendency to work in blocks). But instead I might do this:

1. Identify the direct object:

The team won the game because of great coaching.

2. Identify the subject:

Somewhere in the forest lurks a big, bad wolf.

3. Identify the indirect object:

The old man told the children a story.

4. Identify the subject:

What do you think?

Studies suggest that interleaving the exercises this way (and the different skills the exercises test) increases student learning. But it isn’t some silver bullet that helps students learn things more easily.

Rohrer and Pashler cite Rohrer and Taylor (2007), a study in which college students were given four different types of math problems to solve. One group did blocks of each type of problem; another group faced the problems in an interleaved format. In the short term, the block-format students outperformed the interleaving students (mean scores of 89% and 60%, respectively). Yikes! What good, then, is interleaving?

Well, on a test given one week later, the interleavers’ average rose a bit and the blocking students’ average plummeted–63% to 20%! It looks as though interleaving helps you really learn something, even if if it makes things harder in the short term.

As you can see from this post’s title, I see a connection between these data and that word grit we hear a lot these days. Interleaving problems makes assignments harder–maybe even a bit more annoying–in the short term, for the sake of a larger payoff and deeper learning in the long term. Would our students see the value in that? Do our students understand that a lower initial score isn’t something to be afraid of, especially if it means they learn it better?

I think a lot of us wonder how we can really encourage grit into our classroom, and I doubt many of us think we can make our homework assignments seriously grit-fostering experiences. But it seems to me that interleaving problems offers one small way to make assignments more difficult, not for difficulty’s sake, but for learning’s sake. Interleaving might send the gritty message that “I know it’s hard now, but stick with it and you’ll really learn this stuff.” It’s certainly worth a try, right?…*

Further reading:
“Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong” by Garth Sundem (Wired)
“The Trouble With Homework” by Annie Murphy Paul (NYT)

Rohrer, D. & Pashler, H. (2010). Recent research on human learning challenges: Conventional instructional strategies. Educational Researcher, 39, 5, 406-412.

Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics practice problems boosts learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481–498.

Grading for Skills, Not Scores

The usual way of categorizing things.

The usual way of categorizing things.


I take great pride in my gradebook. It’s a kinda-fancy, multi-colored collection of Excel spreadsheets that I made myself (with training and inspiration from my friend and former colleague Dan Lyons, @dan_lyons). I tinker with it year after year to get it just right. I can enter a test score in the test scores section, a quiz score in the quiz scores section, and some other grade in the miscellaneous section. All the formulas are there to spit out the students’ averages to however many decimal points I want. It’s precise, it’s easy, and it’s organized.

But is it organized the right way? The basic underlying structure is just an imitation of my understanding of what a gradebook should look like: tests count for X percent, quizzes count for Y percent, homework or class participation get factored in to some significant–but not too significant–extent.

During one of my classes at Teachers College last semester, a classmate told me about an idea he’d been playing around with: the skills-based gradebook. Why not keep track of the kinds of questions our students get wrong or the exact types of questions that keep tripping them up? For example, which is more useful for the math teacher and student: recording an 82% on the Unit 2 test, or recording that a student ran into trouble on the word problems section but did well with simplifying expressions? Of course, we might go over the test with the student afterwards and point out the difficulty with word problems, but it would likely be helpful to record the information and look for patterns throughout the year.

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s Driven by Data: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction provides a helpful way for reconsidering how we design our curricula and how we keep track of student performance. If one of our students scores a 75% on his test but misses most of his questions in the antonyms section, do we record that in our gradebooks, or do we simply record the score and tell him to study harder next time? By keeping careful track of specific areas where our students are having trouble, we can offer guided and highly specific instruction to help them improve their performance and achieve mastery going forward. Bambrick-Santoyo offers a highly developed approach to “teaching to the test,” whereby teachers home in on the areas of weakness on one test to prepare their students for the next one. Skills-based mastery is the name of the game.

I have no doubt that many teachers already record student performance this way. Skills-based assessment may be one of the many areas in which primary-school teachers have much to teach those of us who have older students.  I also have no doubt that it requires more work to keep such careful records. But the benefit for the student–and for the teacher’s effectiveness–could be huge.

If we take this idea one step further, how could such thinking about assessment affect our report cards? What if students received joint comments from the English and history teachers about the students’ ability to write effective thesis statements and clear topic sentences? Or if the foreign language and English (and math!) teachers joined forces to assess the students’ understanding of grammatical and linguistic structure?

Addressing, assessing, and recording skills strength instead of simply recording grades on quizzes and tests…I’m still playing around with this basic idea and how I can incorporate it into my teaching. But I know that before I return to the classroom next year, I have an awful lot of work to do on my gradebook. Just when I thought I had it right, time to rethink…*

Twitter, Functional Fixedness, and MacGyver

In December 2009 I swore off social media. In a blaze of quasi-Luddite glory I defriended all my Facebook friends, untagged every photo, deleted all my information, and deactivated my account. I didn’t just leave–I left nothing to return to. I was free from Facebook, and my achievement was met with approving nods and impressed gasps of disbelief from family and friends who just couldn’t pull the plugs on their own accounts, even if they really wanted to.

Facebook was the only social media I had been on at the time. I knew of Twitter, but I’d never used it. I knew that people used it to give AIM-esque status updates–boring sentences describing the basic events of their day. I dismissed Twitter as frivolous, and I continued to stay off social media for about three years afterwards.

Last June I opened a Twitter account (@jshurd4). I’m not sure exactly why, but I think that joining the rethinkED team was the main motivator. I started by following the same people that @rethinkedteam was following, and eventually began thinking of others to follow. Friends, companies, and figures who I thought might guide me to great articles. Today, I find the best articles I read by looking on Twitter. I’ll read anything that education writer Daniel Willingham (@DTWillingham) posts, anything that Annie Murphy Paul (@anniemurphypaul) writes, anything that Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) blogs about. Twitter might make me a bit less discerning about some things, but it’s certainly made me better informed about education, politics, and lots of other stuff going on around the world.

But this post isn’t meant to be an encomium of Twitter. I don’t think the service needs my endorsement (I only have 60 followers, after all). My point here is that I had for a long time dismissed Twitter, not because of what it was so much as because of how I thought people used it. I never stopped and asked myself, “What is Twitter? What could it enable me to do?” Instead, I just thought that it was a frivolous way to keep others updated about the minutiae of your daily life. That’s what I’d heard, and that was my judgment.

So often we miss things that are staring us right in the face because we never really look very closely or think very hard about what we encounter. Our expectations cloud our perception, and we develop what psychologists call “functional fixedness.” If we want to see new uses for things and create new ways of seeing the world, we have to look at things for what they are, see the component parts, and not pass a fixed judgment on all the little details we uncover. Tony McCaffrey, of UMass – Amherst, has developed a “generic-parts technique” to help people overcome functional fixedness when solving problems. For example, if we call the string in a candle a “wick,” we are giving it a fixed function. If, however, we see it as “string,” then we might see uses for it that we would otherwise have passed right over. You know one guy who always rose above functional fixedness? MacGyver.

When we’re in a rush to solve a problem, the last thing we might want to do is take extra time to stop, slow down our minds, and take in all the little details one by one. But isn’t that worth it if it helps us reach a better solution? This all goes back to my current interest in uncovering assumptions. There’s always value in asking ourselves what we might be missing. If a solution seems too easy, then it probably is, and there’s probably a better one to be found.

Oh, yeah. And I haven’t gone crawling back to Facebook. At least not yet.

What Do We Assume About School and Learning?

One of the trickiest things about coming up with creative solutions is the tendency to pass over things we assume to be true. Those hidden, taken-for-granted views that might offer opportunities for rethinking and reinventing our practice, if we just recognized them and contemplated them. Personally, I find that  uncovering my assumptions is the most challenging aspect of the Design Thinking and Integrative Thinking models. The world is a busy place, and we can’t always be thinking about all the information coming our way. That’s why we create assumptions. They make our everyday life more manageable because they make our thinking less effortful. But assumptions also limit our thinking by closing off opportunities for deeper reflection.

To aid our own rethinking, the rethinkED team has compiled a list of assumptions about school and asked others to contribute as well.

Readers, please add your own assumptions–or assumptions you know others have–to the comments section! Our hope is that articulating assumptions will cause us to question them and offer opportunities to reframe our thinking. What aspects of school and learning do you never really think about and just accept as the way things are? What things do all schools have in common simply because they are all schools? What do we reward in education? What do we punish? What assumptions can you uncover? We’d love to hear them.

DISCLAIMER: These assumptions are not necessarily held by the members of the rethinkED team. Many of these assumptions are simply widely held beliefs that we know other people hold or assumptions that we solicited from others. All assumptions deserve attention if we are really committed to rethinking…*

  • Students should be compared to each other.
  • Kids need grades.
  • Tests should last a whole period.
  • Kids need tests, quizzes, and sometimes “quests.”
  • Schools need departments for distinct areas of learning.
  • All students should be graded on the same criteria.
  • Learning at school requires a specific set of tools: pens, notebooks, books, rulers, calculators, protractors, etc.
  • School learning occurs separately from “real-life” (homework, “summer” reading, etc.).
  • Learning occurs within contained spaces (i.e. the classroom).
  • There are “good” students and “bad” students.
  • Schools are not equal–there are “good” schools and “bad” schools. (But is that determined by the perception of schools’ curricula or the perception of the students who attend them?)
  • Students need expert teachers to impart knowledge to them.
  • Education is content-oriented and content-organized.
  • Learning is quantifiable through grades and test scores.
  • Some things are more worth learning than others.
  • Students who cannot perform at the expected level should be “remediated” or medicated.
  • A student who can work or learn more quickly is a better student than those who work or learn more slowly.
  • Routine is conducive to learning (schedules, periods, semesters, etc.).
  • Learning needs to occur within hierarchies (first grade, middle school, high school, college, grad school, etc.).
  • Students need to sit during classes.
  • Lectures are an efficient way of getting students to learn.
  • Organization, accountability, and attention to detail matter more than creativity.
  • Students are consumers.
  • Education level is often confused with intelligence.
  • Schools teach social interactions.
  • Education needs to be reformed.
  • School is really screwed up.
  • School is boring.
  • School is like Las Vegas–what happens in school, stays in school.
  • Education is based on the factory system of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Grades are the biggest motivator for kids.
  • Boys are naturally better at some classes and girls are naturally better at some classes.
  • Grades don’t matter until freshman year, and especially junior year and senior fall.
  • Junior year is the hardest year of high school.
  • If you screw up in high school it “ruins your life.”
  • The smartest students get the best grades.
  • Where you go to college is a reflection of your intelligence.
  • Incorporating technology into the curriculum will help our students learn.
  • Rigorous courses require lots of homework.
  • Private schools do a better job of educating students.
  • If a student isn’t learning, it’s the teacher’s fault.
  • If a student isn’t learning, it’s the student’s fault.
  • School should primarily be about academics.
  • Desks and chairs in a classroom are the best furniture for a learning environment.
  • Students benefit from a class where questions are asked and there is a rapid fire session of answers. (i.e., silence represents a learning vacuum)
  • Staff members are not required to intervene in conversations, regardless of what is said, where small groups of kids are standing at lockers, in between classes. Kids need time to just be kids and figure it out.
  • Decisions by committee take longer and are not necessarily better.
  • Calculators and other technology are distracting and do not further learning.
  • Kids need feedback in the form of grades; they don’t pay attention to written comments.
  • Middle School teachers are not qualified to teach High School. Lower school teachers are not qualified to teach in middle/upper divisions.
  • Homework at the middle level should be appropriate 30-45 minutes per subject.
  • Parents are meddlesome; they create more work.
  • New students struggling with adjustment need to give it time and work harder.
  • Teachers who have experience do not need to mentoring. Teachers who are brand new will need sufficient amounts of mentoring.
  • The best classroom management approach is to be kind but firm.
  • A disciplined environment produces more respectful students.
  • Standards have fallen since I went to school.
  • Those who can’t do, teach.
  • Students retain information when they can connect it to prior knowledge.
  • Everybody at school cares about kids.
  • Everyone in a school community is a person of good will.
  • Students have too much homework today.
  • Socialization is as important as curriculum in the early years.
  • Students don’t like to learn new things.
  • Students don’t use free time well.
  • Students don’t like school.

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