Category Archives: the bookshelf

Skills That Stand the Test of Time

Or why I’m not caught up in 21st century skills hysteria.

I read Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris a few weeks back. It was a fun read for a person who happens to keep paper dictionaries, pencil sharpeners, and a stash of pencils close at hand. As a reader, and a person who punctuates by ear, I appreciate that there are copy editors out there somewhere, with knowledge of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, debating the placement of commas.

[Here’s an article about the importance of a particular comma and a use of quotation marks that gives me pause:


What are we to make of “experts” rather than experts, if anything? Intentional snark or other commentary, or just a proofreading oversight?]

I particularly enjoyed the comparison of the editorial process to making sure that the “tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up” (page 36). No doubt mine is frequently poking up around here, as blogging (for me) tends to be a bit of a publishing a first draft sort of enterprise.

Norris makes the case for copy editors in a world with spell-checkers. When it isn’t unusual to see educators question the need for teaching computational skills in a world with calculators and general knowledge (“mere facts”) in a world with Google, I hope educators take heed that spelling, grammar, and usage are still worth teaching.

Here’s a snippet from my college writing textbook, The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing (2nd Edition), getting at the same idea, in a somewhat hilarious, in hindsight, pitch for using computer word processors, “a valuable new tool for writers” (page 15-16):

As useful as computers may be, however, it is important to remember that they cannot do the work for us. They can neither compose nor make decisions about revising and editing, although they certainly can make the work easier for us.

Funny now to think that we might have needed to be convinced to give word processors a try!

Interesting, if also somewhat hilarious and familiar, is this caution (page 3):

The United States is now an “information” society, one in which the ability to organize and synthesize information and to write intelligently and effectively is even more important than it was in the past.

As it happens, what you can do with what you know being more important that just what you know isn’t strictly a new 21st century concern. Also not new to the 21st century? Critical thinking, understanding, and active learning.

From pages 2 and 3 of St. Martin’s:

Writing also contributes uniquely to the way we learn. When we take notes during lectures or as we read, writing enables us to sort out the information and to highlight what is important. Taking notes helps us to remember what we are learning and yields a written record that we can review later for tests or essays. Outlining or summarizing new information provides an overview of the subject and also fosters close analysis of it. Annotating as we read by underlining and making marginal comments involves us in conversation–even debate–with the author. Thus, writing makes us more effective learners and critical thinkers.

But writing makes another important contribution to learning. Because it is always a composing of new meaning, writing helps us to find and establish our own networks of information and ideas. It allows us to bring together and connect new and old ideas. Writing enables us to clarify and deepen our understanding of a new concept and to find ways to relate it to other ideas within a discipline. Thus, writing tests, clarifies, and extends understanding.

Writing does still more: it contributes to personal development. As we write we become more potent thinkers and active learners, and we come eventually to a better understanding of ourselves through the recording, clarifying, and organizing of our personal experiences and our innermost thoughts.

Besides contributing to the way we think and learn, writing helps us connect to others, to communicate. The impulse to write can be as urgent as the need to converse with someone siting across the table in a restaurant or to respond to a provocative comment in a classroom discussion. Sometimes we want readers to know what we know; we want to share something new. Sometimes we want to influence our readers’ decisions, actions, or beliefs. We may even want to irritate or outrage readers. Or we may want to amuse or flatter them. Writing allows us to overcome our isolation and to communicate in all of these ways.

It wouldn’t take much to update this for the 21st century, perhaps a reference to the impulse to respond to provocative blog posts and internet comments, and definitely striking suggestions to keep an extra typewriter ribbon handy and the use of scissors and tape, paste, or staplers for revising (page 9).


Have Fun, Start Now

Have fun, start now are the guiding principles in Dan Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.

Willingham focuses on three foundations of reading: decoding easily, comprehension, and motivation. These foundations are addressed by age groups, birth through preschool, kindergarten through second grade, and third grade and beyond. Willingham discusses what you might expect to be happening at school and what you can do at home. And, because it is Willingham, there are references to research, both what we already know and where further study could be helpful.

This book is aimed at helping you help your child to see the value and pleasure in reading for enjoyment or entertainment. Basically, kids who read have a self-concept of themselves as readers (“reading is one of the things that I do”) and Willingham offers suggestions for helping your child build that self-concept as well as positive encouragement (it’s never too late to start!).

Willingham also cautions about relying too much on your child’s school. From the Introduction:

If you want your child to value reading, schools can help, but you, the parent, have the greater influence and bear the greater responsibility. You can’t just talk about what a good idea reading is. Your child needs to observe that reading matters to you, that you live like a reader.

I found myself nodding along throughout much of this book, though there were two points at which I was stopped short. The first was at this passage, from Chapter Five:

I encourage you to be very cautious about providing reading instruction at home. There are studies showing that such teaching can help children learn to read, but in these studies, parents are trained in specific techniques by the researchers. If you’re not trained by researchers (or your child’s teacher), you’re either going to go with your gut instincts about how to teach (which is dicey) or you’ll choose one of the many products out there for parents to work on phonics with their kids. Many of these products are not sound in how they approach reading instruction, and most are terribly boring. (Emphasis in the original.)

I agree that many products (and advice) sold to parents may not be sound in how they approach reading instruction, but I am confident that that statement may too often be true with regard to materials (and advice) sold to schools as well. In other words, I’m less optimistic than Willingham that schools are mostly getting systematic phonics instruction right.

In addition, I think parents either trying to evaluate the quality of their child’s school’s reading instruction or listening to their child’s early efforts at decoding and offering effective corrective feedback may need to study up on systematic phonics instruction anyway, in which case, you’re most of the way to being prepared to teach reading to your own child (one-on-one). So while I might agree that there’s no reason to intervene if you are satisfied with your child’s reading instruction, I wouldn’t hesitate to intervene if I had concerns; just be careful who you take advice or purchase materials from.*

Case in point: here’s a portion of a literacy consultant’s blogpost, on the Iowa Reading Research Center website blog, highlighting a video, “Reading Solution: Don’t Give Me the Answer”, from the IRRC Family Resources page.

The video also shares that if a child is stuck on a word after a few tries, a parent can support the child by asking some questions. The parent in the video encourages the child to use the pictures in the book to see if the word makes sense. I decided to try this and it worked! Griffin stumbled on the word “tickets” in the sentence “Mom gets tickets.” I asked him to look at the mom and see what could be in her hand and to think about what they needed to get into the fair. Since he had figured out the first part “tic”, he was able to guess the rest of the word correctly. (Emphasis added.)

Let me suggest something different this parent could have said to her child instead. How about, “Griffin, each syllable in a word has a vowel sound. Let’s see if we can divide this word into syllables and try sounding it out again?” Having assisted Griffin in dividing “tickets” into two syllables (tick-ets), Griffin should have been able to sound out this word, not guess the word from the pictures (which, it should go without saying, won’t be a particularly good reading strategy in the long run).

The other passage that stopped me short was this one, from Chapter Six, following a discussion of the importance of broad general content knowledge:

In chapter 5, I encouraged you to count on your child’s teacher to get him reading, but when it comes to knowledge building, you can’t exhort the schools and hope for the best. This work will fall to you.

In this case, it wasn’t so much disagreement as discouragement about the general state of schools with regard to content knowledge that would cause Willingham to write this and what it means for local efforts to address the achievement gap. As we add more time to the elementary school day, I hope local school officials will take note that making time for building content knowledge (history, civics, science, art and more) is vital for supporting later reading comprehension (Chapter Six).

One other topic of particular interest to me is the role of electronic devices in reading and in schools. Willingham notes that it probably doesn’t matter if your child reads on an e-reader or not (Chapter Eight). However, in Chapter Eight, Willingham notes:

There is one qualification to that conclusion. If your child’s school is considering moving to electronic textbooks, be at least a little wary. Publishers are working to improve electronic textbooks, but with the current offerings, the research is pretty consistently negative.

Willingham discusses digital technology more extensively in Chapter Ten:

The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to listen to, watch, or read and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort. . . . We’re not distractible. We just have a very low threshold for boredom.

But it’s not all bad news (e-readers can help make appealing reading material easily accessible) and Willingham offers a number of suggestions to encourage kids to choose to read.

All in all, a worthwhile and engaging read, and a book I’d like to see local teachers and school administrators find time to read.

*FWIW, I like the Montessori preschool writing to reading sequence of materials and activities. I also like Sound Steps to Reading (plus storybook) by Diane McGuinness.

21st Century Math Education

Barry Garelick has published a second collection of blog posts, Teaching Math in the 21st Century, based on his experiences as a long term substitute math teacher in California. It’s been out for a few weeks, but I’m just now getting around to reading it in book form, having read the posts previously as they originally appeared on the blog Out In Left Field.

Given my service on the Assessment Task Force and that Iowa is still on the long and winding road to adopting the Smarter Balanced assessments, I was interested to be reminded that Garelick had written about administering the practice Smarter Balanced assessments to his students. (Chapter 12: Teaching to the Authentic Assessment).

At the end of sixth period, I dismissed the students, and went back to my classroom. I realized that when Common Core kicked in students would be “taught to the test” for all of these particular types of questions. I have no problem with teaching to a test if the test covers material that should be mastered. I do have a problem when part of this is learning how to write explanations that will pass muster according to scoring rubrics that more than likely will be questionable.

Garelick, and Out In Left Field blogger Katharine Beals, have more to say about SBAC/PARCC in a new article at Education News, Math Problems: Knowing, Doing, and Explaining Your Answer. Opening with a middle schools student’s complaints about being required to explain her answers on the Smarter Balanced assessments (“Why can’t I just do the problem, enter the answer and be done with it?”) and ending with their answer to the question: what is really being measured?

Measuring understanding, or learning in general, isn’t easy. What testing does is measure “markers” or byproducts of learning and understanding. Explaining answers is but one possible marker.

Another, quite simply, are the answers themselves. If a student can consistently solve a variety of problems, that student likely has some level of mathematical understanding. Teachers can assess this more deeply by looking at the solutions and any work shown and asking some spontaneous follow-up questions tailored to the child’s verbal abilities. But it’s far from clear whether a general requirement to accompany all solutions with verbal explanations provides a more accurate measurement of mathematical understanding than the answers themselves and any work the student has produced along the way.  At best, verbal explanations beyond “showing the work” may be superfluous; at worst, they shortchange certain students and encumber the mathematics for everyone.

I enjoyed this collection, Teaching Math in the 21st Century, as much, perhaps even more, than the first, Letters From John Dewey/Letters From Huck Finn: A Look at Math Education From the Inside. [Note: both books are currently available for the Kindle at low prices at Amazon.] Garelick writes knowledgeably about teaching 21st century math with an appealing mix of seriousness and humor, as well as obvious affection for his students. My only complaint is being left feeling vaguely disheartened about the likely near future of math education in Iowa, if Garelick’s experiences are any guide.

Sunstein and Hastie Must Be Smart, and Nice Too!

I finished reading Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter.

The blogpost title references one of the problems with groups identified by Sunstein and Hastie (page 98), which is that we tend to respect and like people more once they have told us something that we already know.

I predicted, after reading the introduction, that I would find the book interesting and I did, though perhaps largely because I am in agreement with the authors’ recognition of the importance of dissenting opinions being heard. From the conclusion (page 214):

Wise leaders embrace a particular idea of what it means to be a team player: not to agree with the majority’s current view, but to add valuable information. Leaders create a culture that does not punish, and even rewards, the expression of dissident views. They do so to protect not the dissident, but the group.

Regular readers of this blog will not be at all surprised that this definition of being a team player appeals to me.

I had no problem identifying with the explanations in part one of the book in regards to where group decision-making can go wrong. I had more difficulty with the solutions offered in part two, perhaps because many of the examples related to business, fact-finding, or forecasting type decisions.

I think that education policy decision-making could be improved by being, as much as possible, based on facts as best they can be ascertained as opposed to facts we hope or wish to be true, and that some of the solutions offered by authors could help.

But what if decision-makers (or those who get to select the group members) don’t want to be better in this regard? What if there aren’t any anxious leaders on the ballot, just humble, pliant, complacent ones or malcontents? What if the decisions to be made are more about values and priorities than about facts and forecasting? I’m not sure this book provides much guidance on these points.

All in all, an interesting read–and a book I’d like to see school/education leaders read and think about.


I have been loaned Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, a new book from Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie. This book aims to explore reasons why group decision-making can go wrong and offer suggestions for improving the decision-making performance of groups. I am only just now starting to read it but, if I can judge a book by its introduction, it promises to be an interesting read.

From page 3:

You can also increase wisdom within a group or a firm by cultivating certain social norms that redefine what it means to be a team player–not to go along with the group, not to engage in happy talk, not to show unqualified enthusiasm for the boss’s demonstrable brilliance, but to add new information.

And page 15:

The principal focus [of chapter one] is on how groups may fail to obtain important information–and on how their leaders and members tell dissenters, or people who have a different perspective, to shut up.

Letters from . . . Barry Garelick

I read Letters From John Dewey/Letters From Huck Finn: A Look at Math Education From the Inside by Barry Garelick last night.

I thoroughly enjoyed them; Garelick knows which side of the math wars he’s on and writes about it with a mix of humor and seriousness.

Garelick’s introduction provides a brief overview of the math wars, if you need a primer on the subject. The letters relate a few of his experiences in ed school (training for a second career in teaching mathematics to follow his retirement from a federal government job), student teaching, and substitute teaching.

There were too many good quotes to choose from, so I’ll direct you to the Out In Left Field blog where most of the Huck Finn letters were originally published, and I’ll leave you with this observation worth remembering [from Kindle Locations 352-61]:

The teachers in both videos were extremely good at what they were doing, which brought home an unsettling realization to me: You can be very good at doing something that is absolutely horrible.

School Is Prison

I just finished reading Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray.

Midway through the book, Gray notes (Kindle Locations 1228-39) that:

A prison, according to the common, general definition, is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty.  In school, as in adult prisons, the inmates are told exactly what they must do and are punished for failure to comply.

Gray acknowledges that it isn’t polite to say so but that “schools as we generally know them are prisons.” (Kindle Locations 1215-28, 1239-51)  Then he poses this question: “Is forced education–and the consequent imprisonment of children–a good thing or a bad thing?  (Kindle Locations 1251-63)

If you have read that far into the book or are familiar with Gray’s Psychology Today blog Freedom to Learn, you won’t be surprised that he comes down on the side of compulsory education being a bad thing.  Free to Learn offers a defense of his position on compulsory education, suggestions for parents, and a vision for how we might arrange for conditions that would allow children to use their natural instincts (curiosity, playfulness, and sociability) to educate themselves.

Gray discusses social changes that have reduced opportunities for children to engage in free play (play that is not directed or controlled by adults) noting that children attend school at younger ages, school years and school days have become longer, homework increasingly intrudes in time out of school, and children’s extra-curricular activities are more likely to include adult-directed lessons and sports teams rather than free play in the neighborhood.  Gray also discusses the harm that results from less time for free play: “a rise in emotional and social disorders” including “anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness in young people” and “an increase in narcissism and decline in empathy.”  (Kindle Locations 1986-98, 2998-3010).

Gray ends on an optimistic note, hopeful that there will be a “decline in coercive schools and [a] rise in voluntary educational opportunities” due to various forces including changes in information technology, normalization of alternative education options, and “the natural human drive for freedom and self-determination.”   (Kindle Locations 3946-58, 3958-70, 3981-93, 3993-4004) )  I’m less optimistic because there seems to be no end to the desire to control others “for their own good” and because the current state of the education reform debate sounds entirely too much as described generally here by Gray (Kindle Locations 435-47):

And yet, the hue and cry that we hear from pundits and politicians today is for more restrictive schooling, not less.  They want more standardized tests, more homework, more supervision, longer school days, longer school years, more sanctions against children’s taking a day or two for a family vacation.  This is one realm in which politicians from both of the major parties, at every level of government seem to agree.  More schooling and more testing are better than less schooling and less testing.

Gray has an answer for this too: “The more oppressive the school system becomes, the more it is driving people away, and that is good.”  (Kindle Locations 3947-58)

As a Montessori proponent, I think that I am generally predisposed to agreeing with much of what Gray has to say here about the importance of free play, voluntary choice, minimal adult interference, mixed-age groupings, and creating the conditions for children to engage in self-directed learning, as well as the harms of constant surveillance and judgment of children’s activities.

I would be interested to see how employees of the DE, the AEAs, and public schools respond to this book, if they take the time to read it.  In some ways, there seems to be a move towards addressing some of these issues (trying to create student-centered classrooms, a focus on relevance and engagement) but how much progress can really be made within a compulsory system?


Please Send Me the Research

I just finished reading Daniel Willingham’s When Can You Trust the Experts?:  How to Tell Good Science From Bad in Education.

In Part One: Why We So Easily Believe Bad Science, Willingham explains why we are susceptible to believing particular things, even if they simply aren’t true.  He also explains why a scientific approach to education policy might be appealing and why the scientific method can often fall short as an approach to education policy.  For example, the scientific method doesn’t work well if we can’t measure whether we have obtained the expected results or not, and because science cannot tell us what we should value or prioritize in education.

In Part Two: The Shortcut Solution, Willingham offers a shortcut (shorter than becoming experts in a particular area of education research) for evaluating claims for why a particular educational program, method, or policy should be adopted.  It starts with simply stripping the claim down to “If I do X, there is a Y percent chance that Z will happen.”

This restatement of the claim removes appeals to authority, science, or emotion that may sway us to believe something that isn’t true.  But it also clarifies what exactly is being claimed (both what is to be done and what the expected outcomes are) so that we have a good starting point for evaluating whether it is likely to be true, is really supported by research, or is otherwise worth or not worth doing.

Once the claim is stripped down, Willingham offers questions and research tips to help non-experts make sense of claims, including just starting by asking the Persuader, “Please send me the research.”

As we prepare for another legislative session and another large education reform proposal from Governor Branstad’s administration, I wanted to highlight the following figure and discussion (Kindle Locations 3315-30).

Student thought  <—  Teacher  <—  Principal  <—  District  <—  State

At the far left of [the figure] are the thought processes that will drive learning, understanding, enthusiasm, and so forth.  The teacher tries to create an environment that will move the student’s thoughts in particular directions.  The school administration tries to support the teacher’s efforts, or the administration tries to get the teacher to teach in ways the administration thinks is most effective.  The district does the same, influencing school administrators.  The state legislature writes laws in an effort to influence how districts and schools are administered.

The point here is to emphasize that (1) Changes in the educational system are irrelevant if they don’t ultimately lead to changes in student thought; and (2) the further the Change from the student’s mind, the lower the likelihood that it will ultimately change student learning the way that people hope.

At the state level, we are likely to be considering expansions of the Iowa Core, a switch to the Smarter Balanced Assessments, changes in the teacher career ladder and pay, and changes in length of the school day or year.  We might want to ask some questions, like what specific student outcome is supposed to result from the particular policy change under consideration?  How likely is it that the particular outcome will, in fact, result from implementing the policy change?  Are the expected results good enough and likely enough to justify the costs of making the policy change?

All in all, it was an interesting and worthwhile read.  We’re allowed to ignore appeals to authority?  Our own experience might count for something?  Teaching phonics is non-negotiable?  Sate level decision-making might not be optimal?  There may be some confirmation bias at work, but I recommend taking the time to read this book.


I just finished reading The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy.

In The War Against Grammar, Mulroy makes a compelling argument that formal grammar instruction is essential to creating a strong foundation for writing, reading comprehension, foreign language study, access to literary culture, and productive civil discourse.

I found Mulroy’s brief history of grammar and progressive education and his criticism of the current standards movement to be interesting.

I laughed out loud when I read this observation:

“Receptive competence” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words.  [p. 7]

Then I thought I’ve got to work that into some blog posts.  “Balanced literacy” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words.  “College and career readiness” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words.  “Positive Behavioral Supports” looks like jargon used to promote an idea that is implausible when expressed in plain words.

On a more serious note, Mulroy points out what should be the obvious value of standard English, a value I might add, that I had never consciously considered.

In fact, there are better, or at least nobler, reasons to learn and respect standard English.  Its existence not only promotes economic prosperity; it has social and cultural benefits as well.  The spread of standard English through schools has retarded the rate of change in the English language.  As [E.D.] Hirsch points out, linguist Henry Sweet, the model for Shaw’s Professor Henry Higgins, predicted in the nineteenth century that the English, the Australians, and the Americans would be speaking mutually incomprehensible languages by 1980.  Thanks in part to the efforts of people like Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth, this has not happened.  In mastering and using standard English, we participate in a collective effort that has given us effortless access to the thoughts of hundreds of millions of people separated by great distances of space and time.  [p. 86]

When we consider the value of literacy, it is easy to become frustrated with how little of the talk about education reform in Iowa concerns actual instruction.  So, it seems we will be discussing the merits of changing teacher salary structures and requiring more time in school this year without discussing the implications of underlying instructional choices.  The War Against Grammar suggests that this is a mistake.

Sentences always have and always will consist of clauses with subjects and predicates and of words that fall into classes fairly well described as verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.  Individuals who understand these concepts have a distinct advantage over others where the use of language is involved—and that means everywhere.  If only for the purpose of helping disadvantaged students, it should therefore be a high priority for all English teachers to find ways to deliver effective formal instruction in grammar in the middle grades of all schools, not just elite ones.  There is reason to believe that this change of policy would also increase our nation’s appreciation of its literary heritage, promote the study of foreign language, and improve the quality of the spoken and written discourse in which we are all immersed.  [p. 118]

These seem like the sort of things world-class schools ought to be accomplishing, don’t they?

HT:  kitchen table math for both the book recommendation (the ktm post on The War on Grammar is worth reading) and the link to chapter one online.


I just finished reading Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture by Diana Senechal.

The book touches on themes I have been thinking and reading about: common standards, relevance, busywork, group work, the use of research in setting education policy, and the use of technology in education.  The book has provided me with words and frameworks for thinking about what have been formless, nagging doubts about various policies:  mass personalization, solitude, and public versus private purposes of public education.

The book also touches on themes I haven’t been thinking or reading about (but perhaps will now): discernment, loneliness, solitude, how we define success and achievement, and the twentieth-century reform movements that have shaped current practice in schools.

My first read of this book was a bit rushed, as I was anxious to see all of what Diana Senechal had to say.  I will be thinking about this book and rereading it more carefully.  I suspect it will spark some writing related to Iowa education policy in upcoming weeks (time permitting).