5 Reasons to be Hopeful About Education’s Future

If you’re as passionate about improving education as we are, chances are you’ve had moments of discouragement, too.  However, lately, we’ve come across several campaigns that had us smiling. We thought we’d pass on the optimism to remind us all that positive change in education happens every day–and to let you know how you can take part!

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5 Business-Inspired Tips for Progressive Classroom Management

You’ve probably noticed that approaches to education and business tend to clash.  After all, we spend about 13 years training students to memorize and then produce results in bubble sheets (which tends to untrain them from their natural tenacity, creativity, and passion), and then we suddenly hope they’ll be innovative and creative leaders once they join our workforce.  One way to help beat this paradox: find applications for improved educational practices among the advice columns in the business world.  Below are just a few examples.

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What We Really Fear: 5 Myths about Standardized Testing

Student and teacher anxiety gradually mount.  Expendable activities like art and P.E. begin to make way for multiple choice practice time.  Policymaker, administrator, and parent debates rekindle.  You guessed it, standardized testing season approaches.

Despite all the options available for more effective learning evaluations, the high-stakes, billion-dollar machine of one-size-fits-all government assessments continues to prevail in the US.  After reading dozens of articles on assessment alternatives (and their comments), we started finding clues that may help explain why things haven’t changed yet.

Myth #1: Schools need to be evaluated like businesses:

Product Testing Assessments comment

Just because some great business strategies have been positively applied to school administration does not mean all of them can or should be. In the above comment, the writer complains about the lack of “product testing” for the new performance assessments given at a district.  However, let’s consider the logistics here.  Businesses can try out ideas and products on test subjects, and if they flop, they can bring in their test subjects for another try.  Schools have no such luxury; their sample groups don’t get to repeat their 4th grade end-of-year assessments–they just move on to 5th grade.  In the end, it takes bold schools like this one in Kentucky, this group in New York, or this district in Colorado to pioneer and make way for change for the rest of us.

Myth #2: When Adopting New Strategies, the Entire District Must Shift All at Once:

As the district experiments with performance based assessments, it’s finding it an easy transition in elementary school, but much harder in the older grades. “The poor middle school and high school students have already been acclimated to this way of thinking, so to give them a performance test is agony,” Morgan said. Those “remedial thinking skills” are what Douglas County hopes to prevent for the next group of students. (“Can Schools Be Held Accountable Without Standardized Tests?“)

The above excerpt makes a very valid point–after all, we spend years training students to memorize and regurgitate content for standardized testing.  Can we blame kids if they’re a bit rusty when we suddenly ask them to access their neglected critical thinking and problem solving skills in 10th grade?

We suggest that new alternative assessment procedures be introduced in younger grades to acclimate students over time, rather than going for district or statewide plunges.  This would give us a better idea of the assessment system’s effectiveness.

Myth #3: Parents can gain more insight into their students’ learning from the quantitative feedback of standardized tests than qualitative feedback:

FB comment on testing

The above comment reveals two problems. One, the parent doesn’t seem to understand that his/her son wasn’t being tested based on opinions–rather, he was being tested on how well he could write an opinion essay. And two, what if his performance was based on someone’s opinion?  More specifically, what if parents had to rely more on teachers’ anecdotal notes and feedback than on scores from standardized tests? Do we really trust a bunch of figures generated in stressful, once-yearly conditions more than insights from a professional who spends an entire year working closely with children? Furthermore, once parents receive those solid numbers from standardized tests, do they even know what exactly it is they’re looking for to “know where you need to work on improving?”

Myth #4: Assessments provide accountability for schools–especially low demographic ones:

Without standardized testing—and lacking any other basis for comparison in their own educational experience—the students’ families had no way of knowing what I had assumed was obvious: that eighth graders on the other side of town were well past working on multisyllabic words or improper fractions. They had no way of knowing that their hardworking, solid-GPA kids were already far behind. (“The Good in Standardized Testing”)

Later in the same article, the author provided suggestions to use tests “for research, not judgement.”  She gave excellent suggestions for improving the approach, like random, testing on small groups throughout the year, and clearly seems to value tests with more substance. However, even when it comes to using the numbers for research, there still remain major shortcomings that affect the poorest schools–schools that can’t afford books from which the multiple choice questions are drawn.

Myth #5: Multiple Choice is the Only [or best] Way to Learn About their Learning:

Jasmeet via Flickr
Jasmeet via Flickr

In the end, isn’t the bottom-line for assessments getting students, parents, teachers, and administrators on the same page regarding student learning?  If that’s the case, we need to focus primarily on this objective as we think outside the box to uncover and share student learning. For your consideration:

Photo Credit:

Benjamin Chun via Flickr Creative Commons (featured image)

Jasmeet via Flickr Creative Commons

How to Spark Joy & Individualize Students’ Needs with Guided Math

After boring both my students and myself with largely direct instruction math for a couple of years, I decided to try guided math. The results?  Increases in interest, one-on-one time, student initiative, and just plain joy in math learning.

Why Guided Math?

Most math programs are still set up in very traditional, teacher-centered constructs.  In the name of “offering support,” some even provide scripts!  This is typically followed by a barrage of worksheets. Then quiz tomorrow. Spiral review. Repeat.

Perhaps the monotony would be worthwhile if we all become mathematically literate adults, but this does not seem to be the case. As the National Center for Education Statistics keeps confirming in surveys conducted since the 1980’s, most Americans’ math skills remain lacking:

It’s time to look outside the box of traditional math education in order to foster life-long mathematical illiteracy!


_Untitled-1 via Flickr
_Untitled-1 via Flickr

One day, while complaining to another teacher about how I’d started hating the sound of my own voice, she introduced me to guided math.  What I found most intriguing:

  • The use of math “stations,” even for older students
  • The possibility of teaching lessons to small groups (4-8 students at a time)
  • Easier access to limited math manipulatives
  • More time for individual students to receive what they need most, whether it’s practice, instruction, or extension projects.

I started literally the next day.

And while it took longer than that to refine my approach, the beauty of guided math is you can easily adapt your school’s math program to its structure.


  • Time Needed: 1 to 1 ½ hours block
  • Breakdown:
    • Warm Up (first 5-15 minutes): Number Talks were one of my favorite ways to warm up (see this 3-page pdf for more details). At the end of warm-up time, write or project on the board any materials students may need to bring to each station.
    • Stations time (45-60 minutes): Students either rotate among or choose stations.
    • Wrap Up (last 5-15 minutes): Allow students to share any mathematical discoveries they noticed.
  • Stations Ideas:
    • Mini-lesson: This becomes a much more flexible idea than simply delivering lessons to the whole class. Some options:
      • The teacher works with small groups with math manipulatives, individual whiteboards, or other resources that are difficult to share/manage in larger groups.
      • Set up a computer with a video on the concept of the day from free video databases like LearnZillion or Khan Academy.  See a fantastic example of how a 4th grade colleague of mine uses her classroom blog to direct students to the video she selects (they have the additional convenience of checking out a mobile lab for the entire class during math).  The video option can be especially helpful on days that you need to have one-on-one math conferences with students.
    • Practice: Students try out concepts learned within the unit or the lesson of the day.
    • Fluency: Students work on math facts with flash cards, games, and/or websites like this one. I would sometimes have them record their progress on spreadsheets like this one.
    • Activity: Math board games, challenge projects, digital games from your class blog, or even blogging their math understanding using Educreations! Especially effective if you have parent volunteers available to help support!
    • Reflection: Students record their math thinking and processes in journals.
  • Choose a Structure: Rotations vs. Choice
    • Rotations: Divide your students into 3-5 groups (mixed or leveled based on benchmarks, quizzes, or daily formative assessments). Take the length of math block time, subtract 10 minutes for whole-class time at the beginning and end.
    • Choice: Right after Warm-Up, take a status of the class, asking your students which 1-2 stations they will be working on that day and why. You may choose to require all students to select the mini-lesson and/or practice stations each day before choice time, but that depends on your students’ needs!
    • Don’t be afraid to try out both options a couple of times! Ask students to notice successes and issues, and to be ready to report back during the wrap up or weekly class meeting.  Give them the opportunity to solve problems, and they will surprise you!
  • Model, Model, Model!

Troubleshooting Guide

  • Issue: Students become off-task at the game and/or fluency station
    • Possible Solution: Ask for parents to volunteer during guided math, either to help check off, help students with their practice, or even to bring a math game to share with groups!  You can also simply consider the location of your stations.
  • Issue: Students don’t get to every station every day
    • Possible Solution: That’s ok! If you’re doing rotations, just cut out one or two of the stations you’re using.  If you’re doing choice time, just have them choose 1 station a day beyond the mini-lesson and practice.
  • Issue: Instruction time not long enough
    • Possible Solution:  If you don’t find a LearnZillion or Khan Academy video you like, make a video of yourself teaching the concept!  Not only can it help you say things more succinctly and briefly, but your students can individually pause, rewind, and rewatch as many times as they need to.
  • Issue: Students don’t have enough time to finish worksheets in the practice portion.
    • Possible Solution: Become a more careful curator of your resources–sure, your manual assigns 38 problems to practice adding fractions, but is that really what your students need most today? Or do they really just need to practice the 4 problems that involve mixed numbers? Or maybe, they need you to design a challenge activity that gets them thinking more about the concepts behind fractions.  Never assume that the math textbook knows more about your students’ daily needs than you do!

Any other questions, tips, or experiences? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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