OneThing48: the rich get richer


Cognitive Science helps us work with students

In Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School, one chapter focuses on background knowledge as a key to learning anything. In our age of knowledge and information saturation, we still MUST KNOW SOME THINGS to learn anything new; relying on Google to remember and then teaching students only “critical thinking” does not work.

This simple model of Willingham’s idea illustrates his thinking that the more one has in “background knowledge” the more one is able to learn. And this is because the broader and deeper the background knowledge, the more readily retained is new information, because the mind wants to “chunk” the new learning. Even limited knowledge is helpful; in fact, it’s ultimately more helpful than a student’s interest in the subject.

The upshot is that there is STILL a critical need for people to know things, certain elements of our cultural context helps us learn even more. This gives some credence to E. D. Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy, a book that ignited fiery debate.

How are teachers to be strategic in WHAT is learned? Good question . . . And Willingham has some thoughts on that.>


OneThing46: when students learn, what’s going on?

I have been thinking a lot about student learning.  Not at the single student – single teacher level, but at a high-aggregate level; that is, how do all students in a classroom learn things, forget things; how do teachers’ instructional capacity have impacts on both flows; how do students’ own sense of their learning gaps impact them.

This zoom into STUDENT KNOWLEDGE depicts three key ideas:  students can forget things, teachers impact both learning and forgetting, and students own sense of their gaps impact their learning and forgetting.  An obvious assumption here, since this is a school model, is that all learning is curriculum driven.  Mark Twain, of course, would take issue with that.

This zoom into STUDENT KNOWLEDGE depicts three key ideas: students can forget things, teachers impact both learning and forgetting, and students own sense of their gaps impact their learning and forgetting. An obvious assumption here, since this is a school model, is that all learning is curriculum driven. Mark Twain, of course, would take issue with that.

First, there’s a lot in this . . . and I am leaving out a lot.  A LOT!  And that is intentionally so.  I want to build in a thoughtful, layered way; see what holds up to reason and scrutiny (thank you to all for feedback); and then ever so slowly ascertain a boundary in this system. Second, you have to imagine that the rest of the model (See OneThing45) is attached: Instructional Efficacy emerges from Teacher Learning, which comes from Professional Development.

The most obvious addition here is the outflow from STUDENT KNOWLEDGE (more on this in a moment).  Students flat out forget things.  At the UCLA Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab, substantive work has been going on for years focusing on retention and various methods of increasing students’ capacity to remember.  Only recently have these methods filtered into schools of education.  Ideas such as interleaving and deep practice are relatively new ideas in education, even though the evidence of their efficacy is substantial.

Now, a vexing question for me is this: what is the accumulation happening in the heads and musculature of students through schooling?  Go back a few iterations of this model, and you’ll see I’ve changed this title a few times:

  • Student Achievement
  • Student Learning
  • Student Understanding
  • Student Knowledge (today, anyway!)

Recently, Tracy Benson commented to me that Learning has always seemed an activity, in other words, a flow.  Barry Richmond, as a few commented, always leaned on Understanding as the accumulation.  However, in the education realm, the mantra now is “it’s all about student learning.”

I’m not too concerned about what the curriculum is or what the pedagogy is.  I am trying to capture a change process that occurs everyday in classrooms.

OneThing45: the Teacher, the Student, and the Work

Three things make a classroom hum with learning

School Change Model 4.0.  This version includes curriculum.

School Change Model 4.0. This version includes curriculum.

In this latest iteration of the School Change Model, I have included the final key ingredient required for an effective classroom: the curriculum. Or, as noted educational researcher Robert Marzano calls it . . . “the guaranteed and viable curriculum,” the single most important factor in student achievement.

Therefore, the three things needed for high impact instruction to occur are students, teachers, and content.  That’s the work.  When there is a change any one of those variables, the other two will necessarily be impacted. If there is a curricular change, teachers need training and the students will consequently do different work; if the students change, then teachers and curriculum may need to change, especially if there is cultural shift in the school.  If teachers change, there will be impacts to the delivery of content and student learning. A change in any one requires attention to the other two.

The Instructional Team Capacity results from teachers having both pedagogical skill (often called “high-impact”) and knowledge of teenagers (a capacity to know what makes teenagers tick).  It is this combined capacity that drives instructional efficacy, an instructional team’s rate of delivering content and engaging student learning.

In this model, then, are the foundational ideas of an adaptive school.  While there are remain some corners of detail that need flashing out, the deep structure of a Learning Team is there.

Simple Capacity Model.  One might focus on the current LEVEL of the stock, or one might focus on the RATE of change.  These will be two really different things.

Simple Capacity Model. One might focus on the current LEVEL of the stock, or one might focus on the RATE of change. These will be two really different things.

Of course, there is never a point when a school has it down, when it should rest when it attains a certain level.  The focus of a Learning Team is on the flow, improving a school’s capacity to deliver highly qualified citizens to its community.  You can imagine the political discussion:

  • CITIZENS: our school’s are not graduating enough college-ready students
  • SCHOOL: we are improving our instruction every year

It would help both to know that they are talking about the same system, just different parts of it!

OneThing44: Team Capacity means what?

Building Instructional Team Capacity is about Skill and Knowledge

Two key stocks build up an Instructional Team's capacity to instruct young people:  acquired pedagogical skills and a knowledge of teenagers.  These are two quite different things.  One can love and understand teenagers but be an ineffective teacher; conversely, one can have the all pedagogical strategies, but with little understanding or empathy for children, very little learning will occur.

Two key stocks build up an Instructional Team’s capacity to instruct young people: acquired pedagogical skills and a knowledge of teenagers. These are two quite different things. One can love and understand teenagers but be an ineffective teacher; conversely, one can have the all pedagogical strategies, but with little understanding or empathy for children, not much learning will occur.

As I think about my School Change Model and build its components, more elements open up to detail.  Admittedly, what is here is but an 80,000 foot view of only one component of school change: how teachers respond to gaps in student learning and improve their craft.  My thinking in these areas flows out of 25 years in classroom instruction and 12 years as an administrator (there’s a six-year overlap in there!) . . . and I am still learning!

The focus on the School Change Model this week has been on the critical stocks that constitute Team Capacity:  Pedagogical Skill and Knowledge of Teens.  

Considerable research in the last 15-20 years (Joyce, Marzano, Lemov, Danielson) and even more so in the last five years (ASCD, Gates Foundation MET) have resulted in clearly effective High-Impact Instructional Strategies that sustain ordered and respectful classrooms where teachers engage students in learning.  Researchers throughout the world  have verified the efficacy of various strategies and tools.  And teachers can (and should) learn these strategies to improve their capacity.

Likewise, what we know about teenagers has grown in the last decade in a few key areas:  cognitive science provides insight in not only brain development but also brain function –  how people learn, how and why people forget things, what happens neurally when children learn (Bjork, Coyle, Dweck).  In addition, cultural competence (West, Singleton, Gay, Payne)  is a critical set of conscious awareness and strategies that help teachers (everyone, really) build empathy for the students entrusted to their care.

Students at De La Salle North Catholic High School, Portland, Oregon

A few of the resilient, beautiful, aspiring students at De La Salle North Catholic High School, Portland, Oregon

At De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland, the staff is about 80% white whereas nearly 80% of students are ethnic minorities, life experiences that generate quite different world views and aspirations.  As Cornel West’s famous book asserts, race does matter.

I am trying to map a system of change:  what are the key stocks within our bounded system, and how can we leverage them to improve student learning?  Maybe you can help me think this through.

OneThing40: understanding is not for the faint of mind

Teaching young people to construct new models of their world

This design graces the back of my classic STELLA t-shirt

We live in a time when our problems defy ready answers.  In fact, they defy even thoughtful answers.  And I am thinking this is so because we’re generally thinking about things the way we always have . . . with a linear, static model.  Our schools are doing a poor job of preparing the next generation of problem solvers.

We’ve not taken to heart Albert Einstein’s dictum: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Longtime systems advocate Barry Richmond coined a term that describes the kind of person and thinking that we need – Systems Citizen.

Schools have to change in a big way for such hopes to be realized.  And it will take some courageous leadership to move communities who are under the weight of shrinking tax support and swelling results-oriented accountability.  It can be done.

Constructivism – the prime tenent of educational psychology for over a century, but largely ignored in the factory-model of education – compels teachers to provide tasks whereby our students must grapple with problems and, in solving them, generate new understanding.   Students, in fact, construct their new understanding through their own efforts.

Students really want to do this!

And teachers would really like doing this for them!

Enter Barry Richmond’s vision of a cadre of systems teachers leading young people to build and test their mental models. In Tracing Connections, a group of educators honor Barry’s work by laying out a blueprint for how to do this very thing – teach the next generation about systems and, thereby, foster insight and hope for change.

It will be hard, uphill work.  But it needs to be done.

OneThing30: learn to love the feedback loop

When it comes to systems, shift happens

Michigan's Big House - a place with an actual carrying capacity

Jay Wright Forrester

Cornhusker Jay Forrester

Jay Forrester famously and emphatically stated once to a room of virgin system modelers that all flows are controlled by stocks. Period.  There is no such thing as a flow controlling a flow.  Really? I get it, and he is certainly many dozens of IQ point smarter than I . . . but come on . . . there’s probably somewhere in this universe where a flow controls a flow, right?

“It is the nature of systems that a flow is controlled by a stock.”

With football games starting up around the country . . . and my own beloved, though probably venal Oregon Ducks starting today against LSU . . . I thought about the carrying capacity of various stadiums around the US.  Yeah . . . we can show loop dominance and shifting loop dominance and a stock controlling a flow this.  Totally.

Reaching Carrying Capacity at your local, crazed college football stadium

In this quick-n-dirty model depicting the stock of fans at the Big House, I took some care to highlight the feedback loop:  as the crowd closes the gap between actual and capacity the pace of entering slows down and, of course, will stop.  (Of course, someone might pay off an usher or two, break fire marshal laws so more coeds could jam the aisles and stands. Different story.)

Just another Saturday in Ann Arbor

The size of the stock dictates the size of the flow.  Period.

This same model applies to the cars in the parking lot, the space available at the tailgating venues, the line into restrooms at halftime, the flow of students into classes on Monday mornings, and on the list goes.

In schools across the country, families will fill cars, students will climb onto buses as they return to classrooms, gymnasiums, cafeterias, hallways, lockerrooms, and auditoriums.  And it will operate in the same way – the size of a stock will control the size of the flow.

OneThing28: sustainably fit for our times

Sustainability – living within Earth’s natural rhythms

Holding Earth

Cascadia - the great rivers of the Northwest and their watersheds flowing to the Pacific

The variety and beauty of the Pacific Northwest

The best way for us to talk about this was to use the elements of systems thinking to focus on sustainability.

  • What are the primary STOCKS of the Pacific Northwest we want to preserve? What (rising/declining) STOCKS threaten the Pacific Northwest?
  • What are the annual/decadal/epochal FLOWS within the Pacific Northwest we need to reduce? Increase? Repair? Honor?
  • What are the relationships among these STOCKS and FLOWS?
  • What BEHAVIORS emerge over time from among these STOCKS and FLOWS?

And so we started looking at patterns of behavior of the stocks we were interested in:  dam building, logging and tree-planting, growth of roads, shifts in car purchases, population growth and shift throughout the region, sprawl, and others.  We saw logistic growth, overshoot and collapse, exponential growth still unchecked, and we noted some absolute declines.  The growth (or decline) of one stock impacted still other stocks. In some cases, the feedback was quite distant in time or space (e.g., loss of salmon runs due to small-scale but ubiquitous dam-building).

With care . . . and systems thinking, we can sustain our only planet

For God’s sake . . . how do we regain equilibrium?

That’s when we started looking carefully at interconnections among stocks and flows.  It was a lot to learn – students realized that they needed a really different, and a really disciplined way of thinking about things so that they might tell the story about sustaining it.

Camp Snowball participants will learn that “Education for Sustainability . . .is a transformative learning process.”  It’s a kind of apprenticeship for living responsibly.  Students in the “Northwest Rhythms” course had to acquire a different set of learning skills so that they might generate new questions and make sense of their complex world . . . and make sense of it in a new and compelling narrative.  The process transformed them, indeed.

When I was a child, we learned about things.  Barry Richmond called them “the nouns of a system,” just a bunch of parts of speech lying around.  In education for sustainability, students learn about the relationships among those things, the “verbs and conjunctions and prepositions” as Barry might say. With this, students can compose a new world view. Holistic rather than reductionist.

Can we not read the sign of the times . . .

What systems thinking offers sustainability education is an accessible and critical tool that imbues students with a radical story-telling ability.

Hold on, everyone . . . we

are on the slippery crest of a rising paradigm.  There is much to learn . . . let’s get our students learning . . . so they can help us!

QuickThing3>Teaching Systems Thinking in Science | Science for All

Teaching Systems Thinking in Science | Science for All.

The Enigmatic Kirk Robbins

Kirk Robbins’s blog Science for All is a smart, entertaining, well-maintained blog that daily tells the story of science instruction in middle and high school.  He’s a fun writer and keeps close tabs on ALL goings-on of science instruction across the country.  In this entry, he puts out an All-Call for help with systems materials.

Let’s help!

QuickThing1>Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture | Video on

In this TED video, the erudite and polished Michael Pawlyn speaks about bio-mimicry as a deep reservoir of successful design we have barely tapped. There are “three really big changes” we need to bring about, among them is a change from “linear to closed loop thinking.”

If I were to dream a dream, it is that we teach closed loop thinking most of all. View > Think > Enjoy.

Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture | Video on

OneThing19: sappy Mindwalk may still help us

We will need to change our paradigm from a mechanistic one to an organic one

"Mindwalk" appeared in theaters in 1990 with Liv Ullman, John Heard, and Sam Watterson

In a movie reminiscent of My Dinner With Andre, Mindwalk came to the big screen over 20 years ago.  It is not likely that this film would play more than a weekend; even then, the venues would be independent, neighborhood theaters.  It’s just people walking around, in a spectacular place of course, but they’re just talking about ideas.  The vast monolithic paradigm is cracking at every conceivable corner and bend and fold.  You can’t see it happening, of course.  It’s all going on in your head as you listen to this.  To readers of this blog, you’re probably already there.  When this first appeared, not so much.

Fritjof Capra’s brother Bernt produced the film.  It is set in Mont Saint-Michel, France.  The set up:  a US politician goes to visits his friend in France, and they join up with Sonja, who tells them about Systems Theory.

The acting is, well, not really acting. Cheese-ball comes to mind.  They walk and talk.  It’s a lecture on a stroll, a Chautauqua on the beach.  It might also be a great way to introduce this idea.