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.

OneThing38: type of feedback matters

Feedback keeps coming until you learn

The policeman’s walk gives you a little time to rethink your actions – but it’s a VERY infrequent piece of feedback

When I drive, feedback keeps coming at me, especially as related to speed.

But back in the halcyon days of open teen life – I can drive my VW Bug like a sports car, not wear a seat belt, and yet live without a care! – speed had to do with how quickly I got to the make-out spot, or whether I got home before mom and dad freaked out.  These are not very good sources of feedback that determine behavior.  Safety? Public order?

Let me tell a different story of feedback for drivers.

I took this photo from the sidewalk, so this violation was not me!

On the way home from church on Sunday, we drove by a recently and temporarily installed electronic speed indicator suspended from the Speed Limit sign near our house.  It’s at the bottom of a hill, just before a park to the left of the sign.  What a thoughtful place for that sign!  In the ten minutes I stood there watching people fly by, most slowed down once their speed exceeded the posted 25 mph.  It’s highly effective, but also highly localized.  Most other signs are not like this.

You really don’t want to know how I took this picture

The most immediate source of continuous feedback relative to speed for a driver is the speedometer.  People consult it all the time.  How can you not?  In some models (my brothers Honda Civic, for example), the mph displays is two inch very bright teal numerals above the main dashboard.  Because it’s a digital display, the continuous movement of lighted segments keeps one’s eyes on the number.  Clever.

The closer to the mall, the worse the traffic. You’d think I’d get that feedback through my thick skull.

Still another feedback mode is sheer traffic volume.  Sometimes, the Speed Limit sign is flat out mockery.  Near the Clackamas Town Center, the Speed Limit is 40 mph.  I was stopped in this photo (I’m a good driver, really), but I rarely get over 20 mph on this road over the weekend.  Traffic feedback varies by city, by hour of day, by location within the driving grid, you name it.

God only knows the mystic feedback looping through this head.

There are invisible feedbacks, of course, all in my head – like the amount I pay for driver’s insurance or the cost of an accident. Of course, all the feedback works, if everything remains under current, ordinary circumstances.  Should something overrun the normal – an emergency, anger, late to work, daydreaming – the feedback loop reminding me to be safe, while still there, can not compete with such a shift in dominance.

In the end, all these feedback messages return to the same interpreter – me.  Inside my head, all these signals dip and dither.  I weigh all of it.  For a long time, my car also carried children, so the feedback about speed had still another element, causing me to act the very opposite of the childless, spouseless, witless high school Tim.  I was the epitome of a careful driver.

Continuous information flow, the threat of occasional traffic fine, the quasi-official shame of public real-time speed, the vagaries of moral and ethical judgment relative to speeding . . . all of these feedback loops in my brain keep me a pretty good driver.  Maybe I need them all.

OneThing26: dude, be gentle with my aquifer

You’ll be surprised to know that it’s been raining in Portland, our second wettest spring on record .

Annual rain flow in Portland. We actually have a dry season.

Even so, there is only minimal deviation from the historical norms of annual precipitation, just a bit over five inches of rain in April.  Even the record extremes have limits:  if one plotted the extreme highs concurrent with extreme lows, you’d see a wide stream in winter (a variance of nearly a foot of rain) evaporate through spring to a trickle in July and August (about a three inch band only).

Even in extreme, the patterns mean something – our geography and climate can only generate so much rainfall.  The Northwest’s moderate latitude, coastal mountains and inland valleys have made for lush forests and sweet meadows – it’s a superb place to grow spearmint, hops, grass (both kinds), and berries of all sorts.

This slide shows clearly that extremes still fall with constraints - and tells us something about what we can use

The two graphs – annual rainfall and extremes – tell us nature’s water story in the Pacific Northwest.  It wasn’t until the newsletter from my local water district arrived, that another story emerged – what humans do when the water runs are low.

Pumping Rates from my local water district

In my local water district (Milwaukie, OR, just south of Portland – I’m literally three blocks from Portland), annual reports tell us about pumping and pollution.  Here, I include the pump rates from the previous four years.  Not much of a surprise there – we need the water in July and August.  What gets particularly hairy is if the snow pack is off a bit.  Couple that with our population taking off in the recent years, and there are multiple feedback loops impacting both our annual rainfall and the deep aquifer that we all rely on.

Amid all this, I started to imagine a model:  surface water to ground water to aquifer, and then the increasing demands emerging from our population increase.

Quick STELLA map of my mental model.

At this point, our aquifer is not in danger of being depleted . . . but there are a few that have been – some are just a local farmer’s well, others are quite large.

40 years of pumping for irrigation and general water supply in Cook County, GA, have led to a steady decline

In Georgia, you can see both the annual recharge as well as the steady water decline as urban dwellers suck more deeply on the big straw poking into their water table.

Here in the currently sopping Northwest, we don’t worry overmuch about this.  No surprise there . . . we won’t worry until some feedback comes our way:  higher water bills, government recommended flushing habits, a ban on car-washing or lawn watering in August, or  – God forbid – rationing.

Our record cloud cover and spring rainfall amounts are indeed a silver lining.

OneThing24: Br. Jack and La Salle science students to the rescue!

Restoring a salmon run in Yakima Valley

La Salle High School students wade into the Ahtanum Creek to assist with salmon restoration

About 140 miles east-by-north-east from Portland, the Yakima Valley of Washington state opens the high desert land to the traveler in a dramatic way:  crossing the Ahtanum Ridge, one sees an expanse of orchards and rivers and mountain peaks that dazzle anyone from a city.  It fulfills the epic imagination needed to comprehend the term “promised land.”

And then one drives into the cities – Toppenish, Union Gap, Yakima.  It’s an area slammed by lean times, and the deep source of prosperity – the land and water – has been used hard for decades.  At La Salle High School in Union Gap, the small school established on 40 acres abutting Ahtanum Creek, students and an iconic teacher decided it was time to swim with the fishes. Along the riparian zone edging the school’s property, Br. Jack Henderson, FSC, and his students have started plantings and, recently, received a grant to start a salmon hatchery.

It’s the kind of thing all schools ought to be doing – noting its special place amid its environs and putting the collective intellect and physical capacity at the service of the local community.

Br. Jack presides over the raceway with the Ahtanum Ridge and riparian zone in the background

Here in Union Gap, La Salle students under Br. Jack’s tutelage, ever so methodically, restore and recover the salmon runs of the Ahtanum watershed, however minute its spread within the broader Yakima Basin and Columbia River Watershed.   In the small-scale operation that is La Salle’s salmon hatchery, their two raceways house fewer than 25,000 alevins.  Each morning before school and, again, before they leave for the day, students walk from classrooms to the far end of the property to feed the flickering fry, soon to be released in the spring time Ahtanum flow.

More and more high schools near waterways are doing this.  It’s the perfect, engaging kind of academics that teenagers are naturally drawn to.  At Warrenton High School at the mouth of the Columbia River, students have established the Warrenton High Fisheries Inc. (, and it is succeeding.  (Over on the far right of this page, you’ll see Moving+Things – click on “Life Cycle of Salmon.”)

This direct work of managing some aspect of a complex system enables students to comprehend the precarious time-bound interplay of multiple forces . . . how all those disparate things are really one thing.

La Salle science students

Some parts of our ecosystem are – in fact – in terrible shape, but students can play a part in restoration.  It’s likely to take a few generations to right the ship. Fortunately, there are teachers like Br. Jack and students like those at La Salle High School in Union Gap who give us hope.

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!

OneThing17: learning takes action

The Awkward and Anxious Boy Keeps Learning by Finally Taking Action – will she say “yes”?

The bottom strands tell of someone taking action

Back at OneThing15, we left a young boy awkwardly trying to ask the demure Jane – his Mental Model of the ask circling in his head:  representing elements of the ask, simulating various outcomes in his imagination, only to modify the Elements included in his Mental Model.  And so it would go again, a recursive, subversive playing and replaying that likely meant he did not sleep.

At some point, he knew he had to ask, to make a decision.  At some point in this iterative process, he had accumulated enough reasonable outcomes that he was confident enough to ask her.

In the taking action portion of this model, we can see that the taking action also drives the setting in motion flow as ramifications begin to enter the story, slowing building up over time.  The dashed, curving line returning to selecting tells us that, over time, the ramifications of this boy’s decision to ask Jane out will impact any future thinking about asking:  if it goes poorly, he will select different elements of the situation;  if it goes well, he will be able to limit his selection process since he knows what works.  Either way, he is learning how to ask out a girl.

For a boy, not many things are more important, except maybe to learn how to drive a car. Or change a diaper. But those are both a long way off for this nervous young man.

And so it comes to pass, Jane walks down the hall at school, her Pre-Cal book pulled in closely to her sweater, as if she were Lady Liberty clutching her tablet. Her curls bounce as she stops at her locker, spins the tumbler of her lock once, and feels a tap on her shoulder.

“Jane?” Our young boy, one last time, replays the sequence in his head.

Boy gets the girl, or maybe it’s girl gets boy

Jane turns to him, looks up, and blushes. With a single finger flick, she pushes a brunette curl away from her brow.  “Oh, hi . . . um . . . ”

“Uh . . . um . . . Jane?”  For a moment, the stalwart mental model in his head teeters.  Her eyes make his knees quake, but he gathers his strength.  “Will you go to the prom with me?”

Far down the hallway, half a dozen girls see that Jane has turned to talk with a boy.  “Who’s Jane talking to?”  Then, Jane hugs him.

OneThing15: learning to do something

Start with a Mental Model of Learning

Portion of Barry Richmond's model on Learning - focus here is on choices the thinker makes to SELECT, then REPRESENT, and then SIMULATE

A more complete version of Barry Richmond’s very helpful model was recently posted on the K-12 System Dynamics Discussion Group ( by Scott Guthrie (wizard teacher in Portland) as he spoke about engaging students in substantive work, and why so many students go to school begrudgingly.

As usual, Barry’s model told a full story, how learning unfolds in a context of a teacher in a classroom and students in their day-to-day experiences.  It’s worth a deeper look, I believe, so I have sliced out the Mental Modeling part – how students might learn things.

First, take in the boundary:  the stocks pertain only to the STUDENT – what’s going on inside the student’s mind. (Barry used a separate chain to represent “actions taken.”)  

Second, the blue chain focuses on a student’s first draft of an idea: of all the possible elements (place, words, what I wear, time, et al) needed for, say, asking a girl to the prom, what shall I select for how I ask her?  In the young student’s mind will be a host of related things to this ask, and he will represent a few elements in his mental model.

The incredibly awkward moment

Third, the first iteration of the ask, the wildly hopeful young boy will begin to simulate the mental model, playing over and over and over in his crazed head how asking Jane will go.  Various outcomes play in his head.  Of course, he rethinks – he selects different elements and he represents elements differently as, in his manic imagination, he asks and asks and asks Jane if she will go to the prom with him.

Fourth, and now continuously for a few weeks as the boy screws up his courage, the boy moves through this recursive process of selecting and representing and simulating images in his head. Over time, the Mental Model of asking Jane to the Prom becomes clearer and ever more perfect in his imagination.

A last note here . . . just replace “asking Jane to the Prom” with taking the bus to a new destination, writing the term paper on Huck Finn, determining the causes of the Great Depression, formulating a geometric proof with the correct theorem, and on ad infinitum.  Barry represented a universal process and made his thinking about it absolutely clear.

The big question, of course, is . . .  did Jane say, “yes”?  We’ll find out in the next Thing.


July 7 2010

Absorbing the blow of a hard life is no easy thing to do.  That’s why so many young people show up at school kind of beat up, cracked, angry, hungry, uncertain, wary, you name it.  Students’ hectic, chaotic, secret lives come into school buildings by the millions every day:  they collide, seethe, find solace, seek distraction.  Every outburst, every uncontrolled moment, every disrespectful action or word emanates from some source elsewhere in a child’s life.  Some raw-edged feeling has been building in a child’s life . . . and in it walks in the front door of our school with that child.

The old teacher’s saw “in the real world” is an insidious misnomer.  There is nothing more real than a teenager’s life in a school:  the girl who slights the disquieted boy; the young boy who tried to hard but still failed an Algebra test – will I always be a screw up, he wonders;  the only trusted person in a junior girl’s life has just told a senior about her boyfriend; and on the list goes.  Maybe it is that each of these three people come into my English class, sitting in opposite parts of the classroom, and we open to Catcher in the Rye and Holden is wondering about his little sister Phoebe, so pure, so smart, so unscathed by living, and all Holden wants to do is freeze time. What of Holden’s story resonates in the mind’s eye of these three teenagers?  Who among them will lash out at me, just because I am the adult in front of them at that time?

And what should I do?

Sometimes, life is simply too burdensome a thing for a young person to withstand.  Here it is that the adults, as a parent often does, absorb the anguish and pain of a child’s chaotic life.  There are not two worlds  – school and the so-called ‘real world’ – but one world in the life of teenager: whatever space and time the teen occupies, there lies what’s real – that moment and all of a child’s life with it. There are no compartments in a teen’s life, no clean separation between work and school, between dating and homework, between mom on drugs at home and the child without purpose at school.  It is OneThing.